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I'm starting my Maths undergrad and I've been told by several people (other, older students, mainly) that I should really apply myself at getting a "mentor", finding a good teacher/researcher and making a good impression on him/her so later on maybe he/she will consider having me as his/her assistant, someone who'll be willing to answer my questions and give me a good recommendation letter when I need one.

There's a researcher at my college whom I think is brilliant, he wrote one of my favourite algebra texts and I have a very good friend who knows him and says he is incredibly nice - the kind of man who'll answer silly questions without making you feel silly-.

What I want to do is find a really good question, go to his office, and ask for his help. Kind of open a door so that later on I can go and ask him other questions and if he gives a course at my level the following year I'll take it with him and he'll already know me.

That's my plan, but I have no idea as to whether it's a good plan, or even if it's a good idea to try, or just sort of let it happen naturally. I don't know if a researcher, no matter how nice, will find it annoying or if it's something that happens all the time and they're used to it. I don't know if there's a better way to approach him, either.

I know that perhaps I should try to win over someone who is already my teacher, but non of the teacher I have right now does research, and my first semester classes are so large it's almost impossible for the teachers to pay attention to any of us individually, besides this researcher works in an area that I find really interesting.

So if someone here can give me some good advice (as a teacher, researcher or student) about how to proceed I would really appreciate it. Perhaps this is a dumb question. Am I worrying to much about this? Or is it good that I'm thinking ahead?

Thanks a lot.

  • I wouldn't try to find professors through your classes. In class you are just a number no matter how good you are. And you don't want to be in the position where you've taken three of the professor's classes and later find out he doesn't like taking undergrads or whatever. Every time I've contacted professors as an undergrad I just cold-emailed them asking to do research and some of them responded. – Ben Bitdiddle Nov 21 '14 at 0:17
  • That's why I sort of want to get him to notice me before I take a class with him, if I send an e-mail what should I say? I'm starting my degree, so I have no real experience yet. – Rebeca Nov 21 '14 at 0:25
  • Aren't you familiar with abstract algebra? That's quite impressive for a freshman. – Ben Bitdiddle Nov 21 '14 at 0:26
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    A friend tried to teach me some linear algebra when I was in high school and even though he didn't really succeed it got me familiar with some basic concepts and ideas that are more abstract that what I'm expected to know at this level, but I wouldn't dare say "I know abstract algebra". – Rebeca Nov 21 '14 at 0:30
  • If you are looking for a mentor to give you life advice maybe you would be better off reaching out to graduate students or older undergrads than professors. They tend to have more free time and are closer to the sorts of situations you will find yourself in. A lot of professors don't remember what it was like to be a student, or they were very unusual students themselves. – Ben Bitdiddle Nov 21 '14 at 4:08
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These are just my scattered opinions, if I misread what you mean, feel free to just take whatever useful.

A "mentor" should not have conflict of interest in any of your decisions

I believe you're not talking about an academic mentor, but more like how-and-what-to-do-with-my-life kind of mentor. In that case, it's better to find someone who has no vested interest in your decisions. From those kinds of relationship it's easier to get unbiased advices. That means faculty members from the same department do not usually make good life mentors. Employers and seniors in the same company or institution also don't make very good mentors.

The means does not seem to justify the results

Not that I doubt your intention being impure, but I wouldn't hope for any favor in return from any mentor (academic or life, but especially life mentors.) Starting off with RA position and reference letter in mind seems a bit too calculating.

In additions, there are other ways to become an RA and get reference letters other than befriending a faculty member. Some departments may collect CV from students who wish to become RA or TA. You can also start making your CV stronger by becoming a private tutor. Your assigned academic adviser may be happy to write your recommendation letter. And in future if you become a TA the instructor can also write recommendation letter for you.

Instead, I'd suggest reorienting yourself to think about what you can learn from that esteemed faculty rather than what you can get.

I don't think you need to prepare a good question, but that does not hurt

If you do truly admire this person, learn his work well. If his field does inspire so much, it is perfectly acceptable to ask for a short meeting (15-30 minutes) to obtain some advices from him and make a first impression. You can ask for recommendations on reference books, go-to journals, prominent figures in this field. And if the situation warms up you can also ask about his career development, why he is interested in this field, a couple tips to survive in college, etc.

I don't think you need to come up with a ground-breaking theorem in order to meet with him. If you try too hard and the question was a flop, the meeting can turn awkward pretty fast. However, if you really do have a question that he may be able to help, do casually bring that up.

Generally, most people appreciate students who would so-called "like to become them." I believe he should be happy to chat with you. If he is truly that awesome that the meeting itself should already be an inspiring experience.

Good luck!

  • Thanks, this really does help, and yes you're right, I guess it does sound a bit calculating, but although I do want to get those things, just having someone who is willing to share his knowledge outside the classroom is what I want most. What I'm also wondering is whether this is common practice, you know, just approaching a faculty member like that, or whether it would be considered strange. – Rebeca Nov 21 '14 at 0:56
  • Also, off-topic, I want to ask him to sign my copy of his book but I'm worried I'd come across a bit too adulatory. – Rebeca Nov 21 '14 at 1:02
  • To me, it's not strange. I have seen many students who were interested in the job I do (data analysis) and wanted to meet for some career advice. If you do feel very nervous, try your friend how knows him or your academic adviser to make an introduction. – Penguin_Knight Nov 21 '14 at 1:06
  • As for the book, of course. At least in the US it's a common practice. But don't do that right at the beginning. Ask for that at the end. And in my opinion it'd also be better if the book does show some signs of being used (very slight wearing, marking, and post-in notes in between the pages, etc.) compared to a brand new one that looks like you just bought that in the same morning in order to butter him up. Keep your cool and you'll be fine. :) – Penguin_Knight Nov 21 '14 at 1:08

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