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I am a student of IT in India. I'm in my fourth semester and want to work on some project during summer. How should I write the email to the professor asking for the same?

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I get many letters of this kind, and I now summarily delete them without replying. Let me explain why.

  1. Money: it's never clear in these letters what kind of support the student wants/expects. The default assumption is that I would pay for them, and as an academic with limited resources, I have very little incentive to pay for an undergraduate to travel from India to the US to work with me, especially when it's unlikely they'll be able to do much in three months. Which brings me to
  2. Project timeline: most letters of this kind are of the form "I'm interested in BROAD TOPIC A and want to work with you because you're interested in NARROW TOPIC B". For a three month internship to work, a project has to be very focused, and set from day 1. There's no time to explore.
  3. Self-interest: There's very little gain for me here, or at least none that's mentioned in the letters. If I want to hire an undergraduate, I can do it locally. I can even get financial support (sometimes) for doing that. I can't do that with a student from abroad, and I can't even vet them in advance.

So any successful letter needs to address these three issues very effectively and quickly (because I delete these emails without reading more than a few lines).

Having said that, I know of at least one example where a student came from India to work with a colleague and that summer project turned into an application to grad school. The student is now at my university.

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    But is there any indication that the student wants to travel to the US? Perhaps they want to apply with a professor at their home university? – Jonathan Landrum Jan 31 '14 at 19:42
  • What is there for you to gain in such situations? What would you like to gain from an undergraduate project like this one? I am asking because I would like to know what a professor can gain in such situations. – Grey Feb 1 '14 at 1:37
  • The only potential gain for a professor is if they are able to attract an undergrad from a strong institution, build a relationship, and then have that undergrad come to their university for grad school. There really is no other gain. – Suresh Feb 1 '14 at 7:34
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    What if the student is really strong and has great potential but he is from a fairly unknown institution? I think that there are (some) strong students at many unknown institutions who are self-motivated. Wouldn’t you like to attract any of those to your lab for graduate studies? – Grey Feb 2 '14 at 9:01
  • I would for graduate studies. But for a summer internship ? that's a long shot gamble. – Suresh Feb 3 '14 at 3:18
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How about something like the following.

Dear Professor X,

I enjoyed your course on letter writing and would like to learn more about it. Would it be possible to do a summer project with you?

Sincerely,
Your student of IT in India

If you didn't do a course with him, there must be something that singled him out amongst the other 50 professors at your IT institute (and I don't mean his new glasses).

Alternatives might be:

I enjoy topic X [your professors specialty] and have used it to program a simple program ...

I tried to read your paper "Letter writing for IT students" ...

You asked for a letter, but allow me to suggest to go and talk to him directly. Make sure you know why you want to do a project with him. From a short conversation, you should be able to tell, whether he is willing to invest time into guiding you through a summer project. (He might be away on conferences or other business.) If he seems like he might be very busy, you might consider doing a project with someone else. (If your professor is too busy to meet with you every few days, anyone, even me, can give you a research project: "Research about topic X as much as you can and let me know what you found".)

Say that you have never done a summer project before, and ask him how much time he expects you to put in (per day) and how often he might be able to meet with you.

All of this can be settled in a short conversation of 5 minutes. Via email, this all might take well over a week, or the professor might just not care to reply.

  • From my home university, I understand that "summer project" means roughly guided pseudo-research for undergraduates in their free time and without pay. If you are asking for free time of your professor plus money, you will probably have to make a more compelling case. – Martian Jan 31 '14 at 19:59

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