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I'm in the scenario where I'm approaching my final year of undergrad and am looking for a potential advisor for grad school; I've done my research on their research, including reading through several of their papers and have a pretty good handle on what they're doing.

Now, obviously I'm interested in this research, and I find that some of these papers have some great datasets that I could use in (potentially) interesting ways (that the paper did not do). So I take this data and start playing with it, and let's say that I serendipitously arrive at an interesting find. In the eventual e-mail that I send to the researcher asking about the possibility of him/her taking me on as a graduate student, where I talk about their research and what interest I take in it, would it be appropriate to mention that I have worked with a dataset they had published in a previous paper?

I'm not sure how this might be taken, and I'm afraid of appearing disrespectful or full of hubris; just generally where it hurts instead of helps my case.

Potentially (?) Relevant:

  • In this scenario I'm just playing around on my own and my results aren't published or in the process of being so.
  • By 'playing' I mean in a bioinformatics sense, just manipulating the dataset.
  • Would the answer to this question be impacted if I didn't find anything interesting?
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    There's always a chance that they've played with the data in the way you've done/plan on doing, found whatever it is that you find, and decided it wasn't interesting enough to pursue. That does not mean you shouldn't try anyway if you find it interesting - after all, what is learning if not "throwing science at the wall and seeing what sticks"? ;) – tonysdg May 9 '16 at 3:10
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    It sounds to me like you have a couple of ideas regarding how you can use the data and what you might find: why not speak with this individual about your thoughts one-on-one? That way the advising process can begin informally prior to grad school! Additionally, the advisor may be able to help you refine your ideas (one of the pivotal roles of an advisor in the first place), or help you avoid pitfalls (e.g., "We've already tried X, and that didn't work, but maybe we could try Y!"). This should also be a good opportunity to see whether this potential advisor's style is a good match! – DMML May 9 '16 at 3:48
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Interest in and knowledge of a potential advisor's work is a big selling point for a prospective student, and this is a great way to do it. I would definitely recommend playing around with the data, and it becomes a great way to connect with the professor, providing a basis for conversations while demonstrating your skills and interest in the work. Even if what you can do is quite limited, your willingness to "get your hands dirty" and actually dive into the data is a good thing.

Do this as a learning experience, not to discover something.

You mentioned "I'm afraid of appearing disrespectful or full of hubris", and you are right to be concerned about this. There is a big danger of doing so if you come to this professor claiming to have made a new discovery. It could come across quite poorly, almost appearing you think you know more than the professor. And unless you are an absolutely exceptional student, you probably aren't yet fully equipped to evaluate whether you have really discovered something interesting and valid.

Instead, I would to this as a learning experience, and start a conversation with the potential advisor framed accordingly. Ask questions if there are things you don't understand. Or say, "I did some analysis like this, is this valid?" And so on.

Even if you do think you have made an interesting finding, frame it in the same way: you have done some analysis as a learning experience, and want to discuss it with the professor to see if you are doing things the right way. If there is a real discovery there, let them come to that conclusion. At this stage in your career, it's much better to take a humble stance of desire to learn.

Also, this is a great chance to learn about this professor as a potential advisor. Are they interested in discussing what you are doing and answering your questions about their work? Are they supportive of your interest in pursuing further study? Do they make time to talk to you? If so, there is a great chance that they would be a supportive advisor.

Conclusions:

  • Your interest in the professor's work, initiative to explore the data yourself, and any skills you demonstrate in the process all sell you really well as a potential PhD student.
  • This learning experience will be valuable for you: both in gaining necessary skills, assessing whether you want to do further research in the area, and whether you want to work for this advisor specifically.
  • Actually making new research findings from the data should not be your focus. If you don't have the skills yet, acting like you think you can do this looks bad. If you are the rare undergrad student who can operate at this level, let the prof discover it rather than claiming it.
  • Awesome answer! Would you think I'd be better off e-mailing and asking about the data first, then later on segue into asking about taking me on, or just including it all in the initial e-mail? Though I suppose it might appear as though I'm beating around the bush in the former case, I'm not sure if the latter would be too brazen... – genomecheck May 9 '16 at 23:54

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