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I am currently trying to seek a summer research attachment in the US institutions. CalTech offers a really attractive program, SURF, to the undergraduates.

However, in order to apply for the attachment fellowship, CalTech requires the applicants to contact a faculty member first and proceed with other admin stuff only after receiving the endorsement from the faculty.

As a non-CalTech student, I have no academic network that spreads to any professor in CalTech. In such a situation, can I directly email the professors that I am interested in working with?

Of course, I can do it, but my concern is that a professor will normally ignore this type of email, especially when he/she is currently not short of people in the lab.

How to initiate such a research proposal effectively so that the professor will not overlook my email and actually think about taking me in?

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    For the record, while this is an undergraduate problem, it's one asking about one of the first steps toward a research career, and not a question that's outside the scope of some graduate student concerns as well. I think it isn't off topic.
    – Fomite
    Commented Feb 5, 2014 at 20:32

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If they expect you to get in touch with faculty first, and they widely accept students from beyond CalTech, then they're expecting you to reach out - no undergraduate has a particularly robust academic network beyond their institution (beyond a few edge cases).

Generally speaking, the best way to do this, in my view, is to email the professor, give them a brief introduction about yourself, your research interests, that you're applying for the SURF program, and that you'd like to work in their lab. Link this to the work they do.

I'd consider doing this for several professors, unless there's just one whose work matches your own. Worst case, they'll ignore it, but professors often at least read these, especially if they're from institutions they recognize, have concrete information, and are in coherent English.

For the record, this is how I got my first undergraduate research position, and ended up with a wonderful colleague I work with to this day.

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