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I'm applying to a coursework + thesis masters programme and am wondering how specific do I have to be when mentioning my research interests in my email to a potential advisor. I have applied to another programme before and I think I was too specific when I spoke to the prof. He rejected me immediately because he thinks that our interests do not fit. 

As an undergrad applying into a masters course, do I also need to have a research topic ready when contacting the prof? I have trouble refining my research topic as I'm applying into a specialization I've no experience in.

I understand that especially for coursework, there is a chance that our research interest (or topic) might change over time, and in some schools/faculty, masters students aren't really given the full autonomy to decide on their research topics. 

How can I convince the prof without sounding like I'm trying to fit into the lab's interests or without deviating too much from his interests?

Thank you.

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  • 3
    What country are you in?
    – Buffy
    Jun 28, 2020 at 16:36
  • Fitting into the lab's interests, assuming they are close to your own, may not be a bad thing.
    – GoodDeeds
    Jun 28, 2020 at 16:38

2 Answers 2

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In my experience (North American research-intensive universities) and point of view, this is a good question without a hard-and-fast answer.

  • having a specific research topic in mind is good in that it indicates that you've made an effort to think about the topic. However:
    • new researchers (undergraduates) often have unrealistic ideas about what constitutes a practical research topic, especially for a beginner in the field who will have a limited amount of time to work on the project;
    • even good research topics may not fit in with the specific research program of a particular researcher. As researchers are often supporting master's students from grants, their students' projects need to fit into the scope of the grant.
    • researchers (and fields) vary hugely in the amount of independence they give to (or expect of) master's students. You might be able to get some ideas about a particular researcher's approach if you can track down masters' theses of their previous students and look at the range of topics covered (these are often available from institutional repositories of theses and dissertations, e.g. https://macsphere.mcmaster.ca/handle/11375/271 ).

It's fine (and probably best) to say "I have the following ideas about new projects I could work on ... but of course I would be happy to work on new or existing projects in your lab ..."

  • similarly, it's good to express some knowledge of/interest in the potential supervisor's field. HOWEVER: I get a lot of e-mails that say something along the lines of "I'm fascinated by your work in XXX and YYY", where XXX and YYY are topics that can easily be picked off of my web page or a glance at my CV or Google Scholar page.
  • The most compelling aspect of an application/e-mail is evidence that a student has previously engaged with something about the subject, and that they are aware what knowledge will be useful in the field. (Sometimes professors provide a list of the background they expect their students to have.) Even if you haven't done anything in the particular field, it helps a lot if you highlight things that you know/have done that will make you well-prepared for research in the topic — this could be course projects you've done in related fields, or courses you've taken (or things you've taught yourself) that are good foundations for getting started in the field.

I appreciate that the last point is hard if you're just entering the field for the first time, but talk is cheap: demonstrating that you've already taken some steps to prepare yourself is much more convincing. If you can't do that, then demonstrating some awareness of which aspects of your current training would be useful is helpful.

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If there's a particular professor you'd like to work with, my suggestion is to read the most recent several papers from the laboratory. Then when you write the professor just say that you're very interested in their research direction. You've read their recent papers on X and Y and were particularly interested in some particular point that one of those papers emphasized. Basically indicate to the professor that you understand what their research is, and you have the capability to independently understand one or more of their recent research articles. Then, if you can, relate their research field to your own training/background. If you have anything specific to connect you to their research direction more than your own words that will count 10x.

My personal feeling is that if you're someone just about to enter an MS program, it's not that likely you'll have some earth-shattering research idea the professor hasn't thought of before. And, you're right, generally, that MS students are generally expected to carry out the professor's instructions rather than have a fully independent research topic (one of the differences between MS and PhD training). Therefore, saying "I really want to work on X topic" might be limiting at best, or actively harmful at worst. Better to simply express your honest interest in the professor's particular research direction.

Depending on the program, remember, too, that an e-mail may only be the proverbial "foot in the door," and there would be followup interviews in person or via Skype/Zoom/etc. Therefore your goal in the first step is really to get to the second step. Better, in that case, to keep things short and to the point.

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