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Summer research projects sound like a good way to find out about a university before applying to do PhD there. Hopefully, it would also advertise ones research abilities, making it easier to obtain a PhD position there.

I know how to obtain a summer project within my own university. One can simply go to a professors office in their office hours and making tentative enquiries. Obviously this is only possible because I am already working there.

I would like to email some professors from other institutions (in other countries) to find out if there would be a possibility of doing a summer research project with them (in their university). How should this email be phrased to maximise the chances of it getting a reply?

If it is relevant, I am a theoretical physics student, who is in the penultimate year of a degree with integrated masters.

  • Do you want to get paid for this project? Because I do not think there are many paying positions in universities in other countries that pay students for internships. – Alexandros Feb 2 '16 at 12:13
  • @Alexandros no, I don't need it to pay. Although, in my own university its not unusual that there would be a grant for this sort of work. – Jekowl Feb 2 '16 at 12:14
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    I recommend that your advisor make such inquiries on your behalf. – Anonymous Feb 2 '16 at 12:59
  • Google is a good start (that's how I heard of and got the AAO student fellowship, which pays you to do research in Australia for 3 months -- it's astrophysics, but still physics if you are interested). – la femme cosmique Feb 2 '16 at 13:00
  • If I remember correctly, IAESTE internships include positions at universities. – Karlo Feb 2 '16 at 14:24
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Taking on an undergraduate for a short-term research project is, especially in theoretical and computational fields, essentially an act of service on the part of the professor. By that I mean that usually the professor will put in much more than they get out of it. This is because the student will usually need a significant amount of one-on-one tutoring, or at least time, to understand what needs to be done and learn the tools that will be used to do it. That leaves little time (in a summer) for actually producing research results, and since it is likely the student's first project, progress is likely to be slow.

If the professor is at your own university and you have already established a connection and a good impression, then they may be willing to do it based on that. The next best situation is to have a professor who knows you well recommend you to the professor at the other university. But if you're cold contacting a professor who knows nothing about you, you need to demonstrate that

  • You're in a good program and have excellent grades;
  • you have familiarized yourself with some part of their research (as well as you can with your current level of preparation);
  • You have good communication skills; and
  • You have some tools that are useful in the indicated field (e.g. substantial programming experience, experience with particular methods or techniques).

All this needs to be in a short email (a long email probably won't get read at all). Even the above quite often be enough. Of course, if you are exceptional in some way then make sure to highlight that. For instance:

  • You have some published research already
  • You won a major award (e.g. you placed in the top few worldwide in the IMO)
  • You did something else that shows you have aptitude for the field and includes a tangible, demonstrable result

The last one might be something like "I implemented computational method X in C and used it to solve this interesting problem; here is the code on Github and the results."

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