Suppose I am interested in doing more research in a particular area in order to strengthen PhD applications, but I have just finished my undergrad degree. Is it considered bad form to cold-email professors who say on their websites that they are accepting undergrad researchers in their lab asking to do research this summer/next year, though I’m no longer an undergrad?

  • 3
    What does "cold email" mean? Jun 1 '20 at 13:05
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    Its like the email version of 'cold-call' - meaning to initiate contact with someone who does not already know you.
    – Collega
    Jun 1 '20 at 13:16
  • 2
    What is bacc? ----------
    – Dilworth
    Jun 2 '20 at 2:07

If you are not an undergrad, you cannot be hired as an undergrad. Most undergrads are unpaid (don't work for free!), and of those that are paid, many are paid using funds that can only go to enrolled students (the percentage varies by field). Besides, most school-year undergrad positions are on the order of 10 hours/week, although some summer positions can be full-time.

According to @J.., sometimes new grads can be hired for full-time summer internships in a transitory capacity. Usually, this would be people continuing to work in labs they have already started with, or professors hiring someone they're familiar with. I find it unlikely a professor would hire someone new for only a few months, and if the opportunities were available, they'd likely to be posted.

Now that you have your degree, apply for jobs.

Cold emailing isn't a good strategy for that (especially not in the current climate), mostly because budgets usually don't allow to hire as many people as you need, much less to have money laying around waiting for someone to ask for it. Apply for posted jobs and work your network.

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    Great, thanks for this information. Supposing I did get a full time job elsewhere, though, would professors have a problem with me offering to do unpaid work (say 10 hr/wk) just for the experience/to get my name on a paper?
    – Chad
    Jun 1 '20 at 4:01
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    @Chad Some immoral professors would be happy to let you labor for no compensation. Don't do it. You should absolutely not offer to work for free because it devalues the jobs you should be applying for (why pay $45k+benefits for an RA when I can get someone wealthy enough to work for free), and forces out undergraduates who should be taking those positions. In some places, it may be illegal. Jun 1 '20 at 4:34
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    This isn't always true. Lots of professors will pick up undergrads for four month (term) employment over summer months for research project/work-experience type positions. It's not uncommon for these to be full-time and paid.
    – J...
    Jun 1 '20 at 15:10
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    @AzorAhai True, but I've also known new grads to pick up such positions, either while finalizing grad school arangements (or as a prelude-to with same prof), or just for a few months of experience while they are job hunting.
    – J...
    Jun 1 '20 at 15:17
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    @GrayLiterature I disagree, for the reasons I stated. Jun 1 '20 at 15:32

I actually think 'cold calling' is not so bad if you do it the right way. Actually, for most researchers it is vital. Let me explain by talking about some right and wrong ways to 'cold call' academics:

The wrong way

  • Write poorly worded or grammatically incorrect pleas for supervision/experience/paid work. EVERY academic and researcher gets these - and we all hate them;
  • Get their name/title/role/institution/department/gender wrong. Speaks for itself, doesn't it?;
  • Being too transactional (i.e. I need work/I need money/I need experience/I need supervision/gimme this/gimme that/ etc). It may sound harsh, but they have their own problems to deal with! They typically don't really care less, particularly if they don't know you from a bar of soap.

The right way

Some of these may sound obvious, but I'm pretty confident that if you manage to do at least more than one of the following you will get a positive response inviting you to follow-up every time:

  1. Focus on your interests. For example: They work in a lab doing X. Hey guess what, you wrote a paper on X in second year and got a distinction and you have maintained an interest in X ever since. You are keen to build on... (etc etc). You'd really like to LEARN MORE about X, Y and Z and are considering working toward a PhD in that area;

  2. Demonstrate your knowledge. For example: 'I see you are working with X proteins [or whatever], I'm really interested in how the Z process works with those...';

  3. Make an effort. Show that you're willing to make an effort to develop 1 and 2 above. This may involve you travelling some distance for a tour of the lab or offering to meet/zoom/skype in a place/time/platform that suits their crazy schedule rather than yours.

[Bonus tips]

  1. Flatter their ego.* Yea I know. You shouldn't have to. But these people have probably dedicated their lives to what they are doing. A little recognition from time to time wouldn't be so bad, right? Trust me - this one works. Young, old, male, female, intersex, etc; EVERY academic will read and respond to your email if you tell them that you have read and enjoyed their paper on Using Z Processes with X Proteins [or whatever].

    [* Edit - note sensible comments re going over the top with flattery below]

  2. Use conferences. This is tricky during a pandemic - but if you can get yourself to a conference or seminar of some kind where you know they will be there then strike when they are vulnerable! Time your move during breaks when they are heading for the pastries and NOT in the middle of a conversation where they are securing a deal for more funding for their lab. Give it a try... it works ;-)

Why do these things work?

Here's my take on at least a few reasons why these work:

  1. They were in your situation once too, probably;
  2. These days academics are always on the lookout for good students. More students means they can grow their lab and get more PhD completions over time, which counts as a performance metric for them;
  3. Cheap labour. Let's face it, that's definitely part of the equation. If you look like you can be an asset for their research project and you won't cost a fortune in terms of time, funding, training or stress, then you are basically in.

Anyway, try these out and see how you go. And good luck!

  • 3
    Some good advice: wrong/ and right way 1-3. Some bad one: 4! Don't flatter their ego. A smart prof can distinguish whether you are genuinely interested in their topic (good!) or just padding vacuous compliments to flatter them (bad!). 5. is so-so. Conferences are good to meet people - again interest in topics matters most. When the prof heads for the pastries, do not stand between them and the food, it's almost as bad as standing between them and their funding; profs do not eat as much as PhD students, so if they want to eat, they are hungry ;-) Jun 1 '20 at 14:32
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    Agree with most of this, but - be very careful with the degree of flattery on the first email. No more than would justify your reaching out to them, e.g. "I understand one of your research foci is XYZ" is good, "I understand you are one of the prominent researchers of XYZ" or is acceptable flattery, but don't go beyond this level (e.g. "supreme authority", "world's leading" etc.)
    – einpoklum
    Jun 1 '20 at 21:11
  • I agree with both of these comments - its actually worse if you overdo #4 above. Handle with care!
    – Collega
    Jun 2 '20 at 1:48

Some professors have money available to hire recent grads as research assistants, but this is a bit more difficult than hiring an enrolled undergrad (as other answers mention, hiring students at the university/college is cheaper and requires less administrative work).

Whether cold emailing is bad form is pretty subjective, and I think it is not. Keep your email short (professors are busy), polite, and clear about what your interests/timescales/constraints are (are you interested in working on research full time? are you flexible about being paid?). If they don't have something available for you, thank them for their consideration and move on.

  • -1 Do not be "flexible about being paid." Aug 23 '20 at 20:31

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