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I am starting a MS in CS program this summer. My department is small and my particular concentration is both narrow and new. Currently only 3 professors at the school are listed as having research interests in my area of interest.

I have contacted 2 of them. One is tenured and one is an assistant professor.

I know that the tenured professor has lots of published work in the field already and would probably be the better recommender come PhD application time.

I'm not eligible for assistantships yet until I finish some prerequisites I lacked from my undergrad. But I want to get in and prove what a good little research assistant I can be as soon as I can so I can beat out the other assistantship applicants when the time comes.

My question is: If they don't respond to my emails, how long should I wait to follow up with them as not to be annoying? Should I just wait until classes start and go talk to them then? I'll be taking a class from the assistant professor this summer in a subject outside my research interest. What's the best approach to get people collaborate with me?

(Sorry this sounds like lots of questions in one, but I only have a year and a half to become the best PhD applicant ever and I want to make sure I do it right!)

  • How long have you waited for a reply? Anything less than two weeks might be a bit optimistic, especially if you're as of yet unknown to them. – Matthew G. Mar 5 '14 at 20:58
  • It hasn't been 2 weeks yet. I guess I'm trying to gauge how long I should expect to wait so that I don't get too antsy. – CSGal Mar 5 '14 at 21:08
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I agree with badroit's answer. I would also like to add the following:

I don't know what was in your original email, so this may not apply.

However, if your email requires some thought or effort on the part of the professor to respond to, then it will sit in his inbox until he has a chance to sit down and compose a proper response. Since you are an unknown student and he is very busy, this is low on his list of priorities and he may never get to it.

On the other hand, if you politely follow up a week or two later with an email in which you ask to meet:

Dear Professor Y,

I am going to be a student in your department next semester.

I have been reading about your paper on Y and I am very interested in talking to you about it; do you think we could schedule a time to meet next week?

This email is easy and quick to respond to ("Yes, how about Tuesday at 10?"), so you may be more likely to get a response.

(I know this doesn't make sense, since the professor would still have to expend time and effort to meet with you. But spending a half hour on a meeting on some future date seems much less of a burden than spending ten minutes right now to send an email to an unknown student.)

  • Excellent idea. I received a response from the tenured professor this morning (surprisingly quick since i emailed him several days after the Asst. Prof) and he asked me several leading questions about my interests and which classes I would be taking in the first few terms I am there and he said he'd love to talk to me about research ideas once I arrive for summer term. Yay. I just have to make sure I stay in touch now. – CSGal Mar 6 '14 at 16:04
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Whats the best approach to get people to let me help them?

Impress them. Demonstrate that you genuinely can help them.

The problem you face is that professors are busy. Though professors need students, any decent professor that "takes on" students (be it in an advisory, mentorship or official supervisory role) knows that it's a commitment. In as much as working with a good student can be rewarding and productive, working with a bad student can be a huge time-sink and personally draining.

And good professors often get lots of offers of "help".

So you need to demonstrate that you'll be one of the good ones. You need to surprise them, show your motivation, your interest, your enthusiasm, your skills, your ideas.

Just a couple of thoughts:

  • Read a difficult paper authored by the professor in the area. Approach them to tell them you found the paper interesting and to talk about the finer details of it. Try to challenge them about weaknesses of the paper (<- depending on their character). This demonstrates your ability to read papers independently, as well as your knowledge of the area, your ability to think critically and your enthusiasm for the subject.

  • Try putting together a list of elevator-style ideas for research topics in the area. Tell the professor that you are interested in doing research, why you want to do research, and try pitching some ideas to them. Try flesh out an idea or two with them: ask them questions.

Like any sort of work relationship, if you meet with them face-to-face, it's also important that you come across as someone easy-going who would be pleasant to work with.

My question is: If they don't respond to my emails within some time frame when is it no longer annoying to follow up?

Approach them in person. Emails from strange students don't last long in the harsh environs of the INBOXes of senior professors.

  • 1
    I do plan to approach him in person once I am actually on campus. But that will not be until June when summer classes begin. I was hoping to at least get my name out there ins ome sort of positive way before I arrive so that once I strike up a conversation in person I can be like "Hi, I'm CSGal. We spoke about your paper on Thing-The-Paper-Was-On. It gave me a few ideas that I'd love to discuss with you sometime." I did get a friendly reply from one of the professors this morning and he asked me some leading questions about my interests and which classes I would be taking this summer. – CSGal Mar 6 '14 at 16:08
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I did several internships when I was an undergrad. Here is my advice

1) Meet the professors in person.

2) Look out side of your department, the best internship I did was for NASA. CS degree is highly sought after in other colleges.

3) Talk to and buddy up with other students that are in an intern position. They will make good references and will tell you when there is a spot open.

4) Be prepared to take the first one or two for no pay. My first two were for credit.

5) Talk to all the Professors, Some of them will take you on more to do some quick task they don't want to do.

6) Don't be afraid of a few no's. It's not personal, it just they may not have the time to train you.

My internships are what set me apart for my first job, and they really will help out.

  • I'm very interested in the part you said about your NASA internship. My target school for PhD is Caltech because of the JPL. Do you have any advice about how to make myself standout for JPL internships during my MS studies? – CSGal Mar 6 '14 at 16:00
  • I would start with space grant, Its not easy to get into, but I was able to get into it. We had 20 or so slots, and I was the only CS major to get in. I found out about Space Grant from SEDS (seds.org) which has a strong presents in many Universities. Even if there not in your University, you can still join some of the national events, witch there is a few social nights that will help you get to know people and get your name out there. – Jdahern Mar 7 '14 at 0:53
  • Thanks @jdahern. the SEDS site appears to be down ATM but I'll keep my eyes peeled. – CSGal Mar 7 '14 at 15:05
  • Also, it appears my school doesn't have a SEDS chapter. But now I'm thinking it couldn't hurt my cause if I were to found one. – CSGal Mar 7 '14 at 15:18
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    @CSGal Yeah, start up a new chapter! SEDS really helped me. Our chapter was set up before I got there, so I dont know anything about how to do it. But I do know our founders did get jobs at JPL, NASA, and LPL. So if thats your end game, your on the right track. – Jdahern Mar 7 '14 at 18:53

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