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  1. 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?
  2. (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?

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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.

  • Tried that, the department I'm working in is poorly connected with Computational Neuroscience departments, especially abroad. My thesis supervisor is a moderately big figure in the field, but our cooperation was poor ('difference of characters', to put it euphemistically), so I cannot count on his recommendation. – Piotr Sokol Oct 30 '12 at 15:16
  • @Peter this is only tangentially related to your question, but regarding “difference of characters”, it is too bad that you let it hurt your later chances… that would have been the best way to go. As an undergrad, it might be a little early to start burn one’s bridges and make “enemies” in the staff. – F'x Oct 30 '12 at 15:24
  • I didn't really burn my bridges, I just got depressed and didn't communicate enough after the supervisor discarded my hard work. At first he gave me free choice in what I did and then he decided it wasn't sufficiently interesting. – Piotr Sokol Oct 30 '12 at 15:34
  • Well, now that his help would be valuable, you apparently can't ask for it… which is why I called it that. But recommendations for internships are among the easiest to get, so maybe you can still ask him… – F'x Oct 30 '12 at 15:51
  • It's good to hear, I didn't dare ask him for any recommendations after the not so smooth cooperation. – Piotr Sokol Oct 31 '12 at 0:41
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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:

  1. 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.

  2. Speak with any other faculty you think may be able to help you, outside of your department.

  3. Talk to your department's administrators and see whether they can help you find an internship.

  4. 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.

  • @erykanal obviously networking seemed like the way to go, but it's difficult to find connections between my university and computational neuroscience labs. – Piotr Sokol Oct 31 '12 at 0:44
  • @Peter - Are you sure there's no one in your university who does similar research? Computational neuroscience is a highly cross-disciplinary field; check the faculty pages of the math, statistics, comp sci, biology, neuroscience (if you have one), bioengineering (if you have one), and psychology... more than likely at least someone will have a connection that you can take advantage of. – eykanal Oct 31 '12 at 2:46
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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.

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