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Here's my situation: I'm a fourth-year undergraduate at an Asian university, and next semester, I'll be hoping to conducting research in order to publish a senior undergraduate thesis. Now, since my university doesn't really possess the facilities for research in the field I'm interested in, I applied to a lab in a university in the United States, and I've been accepted in and told that I can join up in February. It's a fantastic opportunity for me to gain relevant experience in a field I'm interested in, I can help out in a lab environment conducive for research in the field, and along the way, I can get my thesis done under a really brilliant professor as well. That's the good part.

The bad part is, I spoke to one of my university deans (the one in charge of coordinating senior undergraduate theses) earlier about this opportunity and my intentions to spend the next semester at that research lab, saying that this a fairly niche field, I'll be gaining a lot by spending a semester there and that I'll still be publishing my thesis here in my university.

He says that the new policy of the university administration is that they're unwilling to permit students to go out of the university and spend a semester abroad, and the reason behind this is that it's unfair for something like this to benefit just one student, and it has to help other students as well for them to sign off on something like this. The dean wants a formal understanding between the research lab and the faculty at my university, stating that the professor at the research lab would be willing to take qualified students from my university in upcoming semesters to work in his lab. There is apparently to be no communication between me and the professor in all this, and any potential trip of mine is to be entirely determined by my faculty.

Now, I get where the dean is coming from, considering it from the university's perspective. But opportunities like this don't come around very often, and I took immense efforts to obtain it. Why should my potential achievements be determined by how much they benefit other students? It's a bit like saying, if you want a job, everyone has to get a job as well.

More importantly, how could I possibly get the professor at the research lab to agree to this 'formal understanding'? He does not take undergraduate students very regularly in his lab, and to suddenly impose this proposal on him, would almost certainly make him hesitate about allowing me to spend a semester at his lab, all due to no fault of my own. How could he possibly agree to taking in other students in the future, when he doesn't know my university very well and the type of students in it?

At the same time, I don't want to antagonize the administration at my university either. What do I do, and where do I go from here?

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    If the professor is highly-motivated to work with you, he might agree to your university's conditions by setting the bar for future students very high. Also, he might be willing to talk to your dean and smooth things over for you without having to accede to the dean's demands. Talk to your potential advisor and see what he thinks! – Bill Barth Nov 17 '14 at 12:24
  • @BillBarth Thanks, I'm planning to speak to the professor soon. I was hoping to not involve him in any administrative matter, let alone this, in the fear of putting him off. I also have no idea how motivated he is to fight on my behalf. He works mostly with post-docs and graduates and doesn't know me apart from a CV, some e-mails and a few Skype conversations, and I wouldn't expect him to. – Frustrated Undergraduate Nov 17 '14 at 12:46
  • So, you applied to a lab without first confirming with your university that something like this (going to an external lab) is even possible? This does not seem like a smart move. – Alexandros Nov 17 '14 at 13:04
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    @Alexandros So you'd rather I go talk to my dean about hypotheticals which would get flat-out rejected, instead of presenting a solid case with a formal offer from an actual lab? I don't think so. Also, some of my seniors, and people from my batch have gone abroad for their research thesis work, so this practice isn't something entirely unheard of. – Frustrated Undergraduate Nov 17 '14 at 13:06
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    @Alexandros I apologize if I caused any offense, but you appeared pretty condescending as well. And the seniors who went appeared to have held considerable influence with the director of the institution, or spoke directly to him, neither of which are possible in my situation, at the moment. And I'm not trying to 'avoid' my university bureaucracy. I'm only trying to find an amicable solution that satisfies all parties. – Frustrated Undergraduate Nov 17 '14 at 13:16
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You need to sell this as an exception to their policy in terms of benefiting the college and it’s students. Be as positive as possible with all of this. Talk about the great opportunity you found and how it will benefit your education, further learning and your career. Make a big list of pros for why this opportunity is great for your education and for you but don’t mention cons. Not for the opportunity or for the college research. Don’t make a direct comparison. “Aboard is better because [reasons the college research sucks].” will not go over will. Stick to the positive moral high ground. Think in terms of this is right thing to do and tell them why.

Now that you have a better opportunity, you need to convince them to allow it. Try to find anything unique to your situation that can be used as grounds to make a case for an exception. Sounds like research opportunities are scarce at the college in your field. Push that point or anything else unique. What would happen if the college research opportunity fell through or was delayed? It’s understandable to cultivate options to not miss anything in terms of your education. An exception in your case doesn't make it something that needs to be repeated for other students. Stress that point. You are presenting a unique, one time exception. Letting you go aboard allows them to build up better research opportunities while not having improvise opportunities as the need arises.

You mentioned being in niche-field. It’s difficult for the college to give the same level of focus much less research opportunities as a more mainstream career. This makes it harder for you to find an opportunity at the college or aboard. Letting you go can benefit other students. By letting you go aboard another student has a college research opportunity.

Reach out to your professor first. If they support you, it will be much easier with him/her on board.

  • Well, I'm glad things are looking up for you! I do not understand where the dean is coming from. Thankfully it doesn't sound like you'll have to deal with that. – Paraplastic2 Nov 18 '14 at 13:21

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