What would you recommend as the best way of approach principal investigators for internship/job positions? I'm undergrad, with a planned graduation this winter and I want to get some experience before grad school.
- Should I try 'cold' messaging? I want to go abroad and I'm not well networked there.
- I've been on exchange and performed rather well. Can I use this experience to my benefit?
(Somewhat less important) Ideally I'm looking for research experience in Computational Neuroscience. I already have some research experience, I've done graduate work and I majored in cognitive science and mathematics but I come from a Liberal Arts & Sciences college. Will my LAS background be seen as a disadvantage?
The absolute best way to approach someone to work in his group is to be recommended by another researcher in his field, preferably someone he has heard off previously. So, either a big name or someone with close or overlapping research interests.
So, I would advise you to approach some of the professors in the field you are interested in, at your current institution, and ask them if they know a research group or a professor meeting your criteria. Try to be flexible when you discuss possible names/places with them, to gather a relatively large list, even if you later decide against some of these names. Once you have decided on a few names, either you can get your professors to contact them for you or, barring that, you can contact the abroad PI and mention your shared acquaintance.
Regarding (1), the answer is if you're "not well networked", you'll have to find someone who is. I would try the following, in order of potential usefulness:
Ask professors in your department to introduce you to other researchers you want to work with. They may be familiar with other researchers in your field and may be a good source of contacts.
Speak with any other faculty you think may be able to help you, outside of your department.
Talk to your department's administrators and see whether they can help you find an internship.
Try to contact students in the department you wish to intern and see whether they can help you get in touch with an advisor.
Regarding (2), it likely won't have much of an effect. Once you've actually performed research, the quality of your research output is primarily what's used to gauge your usefulness and potential. University and grades are a good proxy before then, but they're only a proxy.
As someone who has done exactly what you're looking for (an international PI hiring an undergrad as an intern), I can tell you that the circumstances are pretty unique, and it's not an easy road, unless you follow eykanal's or F'x's recommendations, and get a referral from someone who's worked with you and who can vouch for you to the person you want to work for.
In this personal case, the reason why I even gave this individual the time of day was that his "cover letter" email was compelling enough and well-researched enough to get me to take notice. I requested letters of recommendation and got good feedback on those, and had a similarly positive phone interview. More importantly, I already had a research project in mind where I could take advantage of the extra manpower, as well as the resources to commit to paying for the work.
Had any of those fallen through, I wouldn't have done it. But everything was properly aligned, and the experience has been successful.