I'm an undergraduate. I sent two emails to professors regarding potential research work. Both responded positively, which I didn't expect, and I started work with one of the profs last term. As for the other, I think his work is incredibly interesting but I simply don't have the time for two research projects at once. However, I would really like to work with him eventually.

How can I tell the other professor that I'm too busy this quarter but would like to work with him at some point in the future? It seems a bit awkward to mention the other professor so I'm not sure how to explain it.

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    Maybe stop equalizing professors with gods. They are normal humans, with some specialized and certified knowledge, and in no way they are more special or important than any other guy. Just tell them.
    – phresnel
    Mar 31, 2015 at 12:05
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    @phresnel equating*
    – Thomas
    Mar 31, 2015 at 14:58
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    I am a professor myself and I simply want to express my total agreement with phresnel's post ("Maybe stop equalizing..."). I am convinced that lack of spontaneity and 'beating around the bush' (as Moriarty says) lead students to a waste of their time, as well as decrease their self-esteem. To me, honesty + politeness make the perfect 'rule of thumb' in both directions. I sincerely hope phresnel's and Moriarty's advice help you succeed.
    – user32506
    Mar 31, 2015 at 17:06
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    @jakebeal Agreed, sadly. The more I become involved in the details of running an academic department, the more I realize that "logical" or even "grown-up" is not a good description of a surprisingly large fraction of faculty.
    – Corvus
    Apr 1, 2015 at 4:43
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    @Corvus Logical or grown-up is not a good description of any larger body of people, including, but not limited to, academics. I think academia would do well to stop pretending that professors are somehow magically more ethical or more rational than other people in leadership positions. It would stop us from getting disappointed so often.
    – xLeitix
    Apr 1, 2015 at 8:50

2 Answers 2


Just say so directly! He will value your directness and honesty – 'beating around the bush' gets rather tiresome. There's enough of that from management...

I'm sorry that I don't have time to work with you this term, as I have now started on a research project with Prof A that I am committed to finishing. However, I would still really like to work with you in the future. Since I aim to finish my current project in a few months, around the end of June, would you mind if I contact you again then?

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    +1 for "would you mind if I contact you again then?" Mar 31, 2015 at 19:50
  • Hm, thanks for this template but I honestly don't know when the other work will end and I don't want to list a date that I can't stick to. At the same time, asking to contact him at some vague point in the future doesn't seem right either - any thoughts?
    – eagle34
    Apr 1, 2015 at 2:55
  • @eagle34 then just say that you're honestly not sure when you will finish. There's nothing else you can say without either lying, or being vague. Be direct and forthcoming. Professors do understand that undergraduate students want to try their hand at more than one area of research!
    – Moriarty
    Apr 1, 2015 at 9:40
  • +1 for directness. Many professors are very busy and like to know if they will not have some time commitments (like mentoring students).
    – T K
    Apr 1, 2015 at 10:05
  • Don't feel 'guilty' about declining, it isn't actually 'being nice' to the faculty member to promise to participate when it ends up overbooking your energies. @TK comment is appropriate. -Mentoring/helping a UG student can take a lot of the advisor's time and energy, too) many faculty would rather a student not agree/promise to participate unless the student is credibly giving as much extra effort as possible (under the assumption that classes and other extracurricular activities take up all the other available time).
    – Carol
    Sep 13, 2016 at 13:29

I wanted to write a comment but I'm not allowed. Here's a variant on the @Moriarty draft.

I wanted to write to you with an update. I started a project on such-and-so with Prof A and it's going well. I really appreciated your encouraging email. I was surprised to get positive responses from two professors! If I had it to do over again, maybe it would have been better to write to one first, and then the other.

As I can only do one project at a time, I will have to decline your kind invitation. I'm still very interested in what you're doing with such-and-so. I hope I may write to you again at some point, when my schedule frees up, to see if you have space in your lab at that time.

Anyway, I did want to let you know what I've been up to, and why I haven't been in touch. Thanks again for your kind encouragement.

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    I think this is overly casual and chatty. Be direct, be clear, be concise.
    – chmullig
    Apr 1, 2015 at 16:11

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