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There are many helpful posts explaining how a hopeful graduate student should contact a potential supervisor (example 1, example 2). However, I cannot find any advice about how an undergraduate should contact a supervisor regarding undergraduate research experience. As an undergraduate, I do not know what to include in my email because I do not have any distinct experience (or much knowledge) in the professor's field.

For hopeful graduate students, the common advice seems to be:

  • introduce yourself/your previous work
  • explain why you are interested in his/her work, papers, etc.
  • emphasize what differentiates you from other candidates, besides grades/scores

The reason I am interested in this particular professor is just because their research sounds fascinating and exciting. I am taking a class related to their field and I enjoy it. I have looked at some of their publications but I find it difficult to understand the details; I do not have the background knowledge. I am just interested in working in their lab so that I can learn more about the field.

For context, I do not go to the university where they are a faculty member. I have undergrad research experience at my own university. I also have research experience at this professor's university (but for a different faculty member in the same department). I have good grades, but no publications.

Since I have a general interest in her research, but not much background knowledge or experience, what details should I include in my email?

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    My impression is that it's pretty unusual for professors to bring in undergraduate students from different universities to work in their labs, except in special cases like REUs. Do you have some special reason to think this professor is likely to be looking for outside students? – Nate Eldredge Nov 5 '15 at 22:58
  • I am aware that this professor has recently changed universities and is looking for graduate students. Also, there is a government funded program that can help fund these kind of undergraduate exchanges (this is why I have previously worked at this university). – Wise Owl Nov 5 '15 at 23:18
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    Looking for graduate students is a very different thing than looking for undergraduates. – Nate Eldredge Nov 5 '15 at 23:21
  • Yes, you are right. I am not sure whether this professor has any interest in hiring undergraduates, especially from another school. I only know that I am interested in her work. And, from the lab website, that she has had undergraduates in her group in previous years. I just would like to know the best way to ask, even if the answer will inevitably be 'no'. – Wise Owl Nov 5 '15 at 23:42
  • The NSF has a program called Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU). See nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=5517&from=fund – aparente001 Nov 7 '15 at 2:01
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Some details to include

  • Attach a copy of your CV and your unofficial transcripts.
  • Briefly describe your past undergraduate research experience.
  • Briefly mention the coursework you have taken/are taking that is highly relevant to the work he is doing.
  • Briefly explain what excites you about the work in this lab.
  • Mention your future plans (for after graduation). For example, if you are planning to do a PhD, I would be much more interested in mentoring you as an undergraduate research student, because if you are a strong student I can try and recruit you into my PhD program. This is especially true if I am a new professor looking for graduate students!

From the professor's point of view, mentoring a short-term undergraduate student is a relatively low-risk and low-commitment endeavor (compared to taking on a graduate student.) On the other hand, it does require significant investment of time that may never really pay off (the student will probably move on before they become really "useful" to the professor.) Some professors do it largely because their department wants to provide undergraduate research experiences to their own students. In this case, they probably won't be interested in outside students. Some professors do it because they enjoy it (I do!) or because it looks good on grant proposals (it does!), and will be more open to undergraduates from outside their institution. It's certainly worth a shot.

  • And make sure to include what you wrote here: " their research sounds fascinating and exciting. I am taking a class related to their field and I enjoy it. I have looked at some of their publications but I find it difficult to understand the details; I do not have the background knowledge. I am just interested in working in their lab so that I can learn more about the field." – aparente001 Nov 7 '15 at 2:00

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