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I was wondering what I should do in this situation as an undergraduate student:

About a month ago, I applied for and did not get into a program that allows first-year students to work on research projects that professors put forward, with the intention of introducing students to research, which included a research stipend, housing, etc.

I was very interested in the professors topic of research, and was wondering if it would be okay for me to ask the professor for the opportunity to work with him essentially as an unpaid intern, as I would really like the opportunity to learn more about the topic.

Would he view this attempt to do research under him as desperate? Or would he appreciate the opportunity to have an extra research assistant?

I know that the answer would depend on the professor himself, and on my relationship with him, but how do professors in general feel about students coming up to them and asking to be a part of their research?

28

Absolutely, with no qualifications, approach the researcher and ask what it would take to do research in his/her lab. As a first-year undergraduate student, it's very likely that you don't have the knowledge to contribute to the projects. So approach humbly, asking what you can do to prepare yourself. Ask for suggestions for a review paper or a few research reports that would bring you up to speed. Ask if you can attend lab meetings as a fly-on-the-wall to absorb the controversies and decisions being made day-by-day. The very worst possible case is that you're told, "no." If so, you're already there. Next worst is that you invest your time and get only an education out of it. That's not so bad. You'll be positioned very very well for next year.

Good luck!

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Personally, I am always happy to talk about possibilities for working in my research group with a student who's interested in the group. The challenge is that most first-year students might not have the background to understand what's going on in the research, so they end up being more "technicians" than researchers.

So I don't think it's a problem for you to discuss the possibility of doing the "internship"; your university may even offer an opportunity to get course credit for it as an "independent study." However, you should be prepared for the possibility that the professor feels you're not quite ready for the work—but he may definitely suggest ways to overcome that deficit.

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Here's another option: email or talk to one of the professor's graduate students. By working with the graduate student, you'll be working with the professor anyway.

For context: I'm a computer science PhD student at a large United States research university. At my school, most professors are bombarded with emails and requests from undergraduates (in addition to, of course, PhD and masters students, and postdocs). Indeed, my PhD advisor told me that he/she gets about one email each day from an undergrad requesting research opportunities.

I've worked with roughly 20 undergraduate researchers to some extent. About half of them got in our lab by emailing PhD students, who then recommended him/her to the professor if the undergraduate's resume exceeded a certain bar. The other half emailed the professor directly, but often in those cases, the professor ended up forwarding the undergrad's resume to the PhD students. While I don't have hard statistics on what this is like throughout my entire department (let alone university) I think this is a common strategy that students pursue, and the one I would begin with if I were back in my undergraduate days.

As another positive note, sometimes graduate students' research websites are more up to date than those of the professor's!

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It is worth noting that etiquette in approaching a professor to discuss research opportunities can vary by institution. At the university I currently attend it is considered extremely poor form to approach a professor out of the blue and ask them if they have any opportunities for research. This includes professors you are taking a course with -- rather, it is expected that you will work with your advisor to go through established channels to find research opportunities.

At my undergraduate institution this was not the case, and reaching out to professors to discuss research opportunities was strongly encouraged. I suggest discussing this with your academic advisor and seeing what he/she thinks just to be on the safe side.

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  • I am curious why this is a poor in your institution? Is it because of the culture of the country where you live? Please elaborate – Cedric Martens Sep 9 '19 at 22:28
  • It's just part of the culture and processes of the institution. I believe the intention is both to avoid the embarrassment of a student getting "rejected" by the professor for being unqualified to do research, as well as to protect a professor's time by ensuring that any research applicant has been "vetted" by their advisor to being a possible good fit. – 01010110011001 Sep 12 '19 at 17:02
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There are basically two strategies to get a research opportunity in university. By excellence or by motivation. For both situations, you have to find a way to show your excellence or your motivation to the professor. Working as an intern for him is a good idea. It gives the professor an opportunity to know more about you. If you are excellent enough, the professor will ask you about your plan in the future (to see if you're going to pursuit a PhD, probably with him), show his interest in you or even offer you research position in this team.

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  • 3
    This is not particularly useful advice. I am interested in students who are motivated more than insisting on academic excellence! – aeismail May 4 '14 at 22:45
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    the professor will approach you if you are excellent enough — [citation needed] – JeffE May 5 '14 at 1:00

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