I am a 19 year old sophomore at a well-regarded state university. I currently have a double major in the arts/humanities and public policy, with a minor in linguistics. I just took the intro to PoliSci course, and I think I've done pretty well in it (practically guaranteed a 4.0).

Anyways, onto the question. So I emailed my professor (as it was an entirely online course), and sent this....

"Professor ----,

[insert some stuff about grades, course]

Lastly, are you aware of any research/volunteer opportunities in the PoliSci department at ---? I am aware of the [insert name of local policy network], but was wondering if you knew about any other interesting things going on. I'm really interested in public policy (my additional major is in it!), but the international relations section in the course also interested me. I'm particularly interested in humanitarian/human rights work. I haven't taken many PoliSci courses yet, but I would be interested in getting involved in the PoliSci Department in any capacity.



He responded a few days later with this:

"Hi Corjine,

[stuff about courses/grade]

In terms of research work, most professors are happy to work with students as both research assistants (i.e., you help a faculty member on their work) or as research advisors (i.e., you work on your own research project and a faculty member provides oversight). I'd recommend looking at our bios online and directly contacting anyone that who's work look interesting or related to what you're wanting to research on your own. If you need additional help, you can also ask me and I'll do my best to refer you to the most appropriate person (I can also send an email introduction to that faculty member to help grease the wheels)." [emphasis mine]


Professor ---"

I haven't taken many PoliSci courses yet. The meat of my courses for this upcoming year will be my arts/humanities and linguistics courses, as that is how my degree is designed. The majority of my junior and senior level classes being PoliSci and upper level courses. So for the next year or so, I'm not going to have much formal polisci experience. I'll only be taking public policy analysis and a methods of analysis class (read: statistics for PoliSci students).

What I'm worried about is how I'll go about getting research experience without much of an academic background in it. I've had a passion/enthusiasm for politics for a long time, and the intro class was a breeze for me (barring a few theoretical concepts). I'm just afraid about how it will pan out if I take shots in the dark without having the proper background, so to speak. I'd love to get a jumpstart on research/volunteering/engagement if possible, but would it be more valuable for me to wait until junior year? And would that reduce my chance of a good recommendation from the professor?

I really am at a loss here. I haven't had any formal research experience before, and I'm working my first, true job this summer. I'm winging it the best I can, but I want to make sure I'm not totally shooting myself in the foot at the starting gate. Any suggestions/advice would be helpful!

tl;dr Is enthusiasm/willing to learn a good substitute for formal academic experience, or should I just hang tight for a year and wait to do some research?

Also, if this isn't an appropriate question for SE (I'm still pretty new here), let me know and I'll post elsewhere. Thanks!

  • 3
    I think the professor gave you the answer you seek already. Ask and you will be told :). Btw., let me congratulate on having so helpful faculty in your institution. I certainly know professors with whom this mail exchange would have been significantly less fruitful.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jun 29, 2014 at 10:37
  • academia.stackexchange.com/questions/24106/…
    – user130154
    Commented Oct 2, 2020 at 11:55

3 Answers 3


There is no harm in asking.

To answer your tl;dr question, it depends. "Research" is not a monolithic thing. Some professors may be working on projects that would be accessible to someone without a strong background in the subject, or would be willing to work with you to bring you up to speed. Other projects may need someone who already has a strong background in a particular area and can jump right in.

Clearly you would be looking for a project of the first kind, and the only way to know whether anyone has one to suggest is to ask. If you hear of something promising, talk to the professor; try to get a sense of whether it seems like something that would be interesting and accessible to you. Be honest with the professor about what background you do or don't have. (Don't try to present yourself as knowing more than you do; if you end up working on a project that you aren't prepared for, the result will only be frustration for everyone.)

If you find something that seems to be a good fit for you, great; if not, try again next year, with more courses under your belt.


Many schools have a program specifically to allow professors to list openings for undergraduate assistants. Whether any of those openings will be in your department, and whether any of them will be able to use you before you've gotten some basic grounding in the fields, is an open question... but that's where I'd start looking.

  • We do have research assistantships, but their availability is very much geared towards honors college students. If you aren't in the honors college, you actively have to seek them out.
    – corjine
    Commented Jun 28, 2014 at 20:27

It's okay if you don't have all the "prerequisite" knowledge. I think undergrad research is primarily supposed to be a learning experience. At least, that's what my experience has been.

To give an anecdote, I switched majors to computer science last semester. I expressed interest in AI to a professor, and soon enough I was doing undergrad research on AI. I obviously didn't know anything about it at the time, but I have nonetheless been one of the biggest contributors to the project.

Computer science may be different from your field, but I think the general idea should still stand. If you're willing to put in the effort to learn what you don't yet know, why should anyone else be bothered that you didn't know it in the first place?

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