17

I'm at a relatively small Liberal Arts College (top 25, so not "bad", just relatively small) and there are limited opportunities for research in the field I am interested in: behavioral science of resource consumption.

How strange would it be to email a professor from another undergrad institution, asking if I can work in their lab over the summer?

  • 2
    Also look for official, organized summer research programs you can apply to, including programs organized by your school involving doing research at other schools, and programs organized by other schools that are open to undergrads from any school (e.g. REU). – ff524 Oct 30 '16 at 17:01
  • 3
    'LAC' = Liberal Arts College, I take it – smci Oct 31 '16 at 10:28
29

Not strange at all, just don't expect a quick response!

A plan of attack can be summarised in the following way:

1) Be specific

Make sure your email is brief, polite and clearly outlines why you want to work in their lab in particular.

I would recommend searching for a few different labs that do the specific research you're interested in, which you can find out by looking for recent publications or on the websites of the relevant institutions. Perhaps someone in your current department can recommend a lab- they may have connections, or would be willing to write you a reference letter.

2) Be persistent

If you don't get a reply within a few weeks, follow up once and then let it lie. Try asking someone else.

Most importantly, don't give up- it took me nearly three months of emailing back and forth with ten different people when I was in a similar situation last year.

3) Be enthusiastic

Remember professors are generally happy when someone expresses an interest in their niche field and shouldn't just dismiss you offhand.

Good luck!

  • 7
    I agree with all this. You should also clearly point out whether you're asking for a paid or volunteer position. – Raghu Parthasarathy Oct 30 '16 at 17:12
18

When you approach someone who doesn't know you, make sure that the recipient of your mail understands that you are specifically addressing this person. I get about one email per week asking for supervision in "your institution" by someone who is interested in "your subject of research". For some time I asked back about which of my interests they are actually interested in, and never got a response, so now every email which looks as it was indiscriminately sent out to 100 professors is treated like an email that was indiscriminately sent out to 100 professors, i.e. spam.

  • 1
    To be clear, you should provide as much detail as you can about what you know of that person, their lab, and their work, and the reasons you are attracted to working with them. – jwg Oct 31 '16 at 12:14
  • I wonder who wants to waste their time to spam – Ooker Aug 24 '17 at 8:00
5

This is common, so feel free to email to ask, but know there may be limitations. For example, the lab may typically hire students from their university at hourly positions or give credit for lab work, but may only be able to take volunteers from another institution.

Also, know that even if you are offering to volunteer your time, as an undergraduate with little to no experience, you will likely be more of a drain on the resources of the lab you join rather than an asset, so be gracious and expect rejection; you might need to try multiple options if your first choice doesn't work out. It will be crucial in your email to make clear your level of interest and a demonstration of your commitment (for example, by understanding something about the current research being done in the lab).

I would also consider getting advice from a professor at your current institution who may have contacts at nearby institutions.

2

Another suggestion if you are prepared to be a bit bold. Find a paper (preferably published as recent as possible) that especially interests you and is written (primarily) by a researchers about half-way in the hierarchy in the institution. Then try calling that researcher. You should say something along the lines of:
"Hi I am so-and-so, a student at stage X of my degree Y. I am very interested in your research on subject Z, especially your paper A. I was wondering if you have any positions for students like me for over the summer. Can I e-mail you about this or should I e-mail someone else?".
In my experience, almost always they will say: sent me/that person an e-mail on this e-mail address. Of course you have your e-mail ready to go, so you hit send as soon as you hang up.
This strategy has several advantages:

  1. It humanizes you. An e-mail can be sent to dozens of people with fairly little effort, a call takes more commitment. Or, it at least feels like more focused. It also shows you are interested in the actual research, instead of just the name of the top professor and the institution.
  2. Usually e-mails get read sporadically and e-mails from outside students get very low priority or at times forgotten. After this call the researchers knows to expect an e-mail at a specific e-mail address about this specific topic. If you are lucky the researchers gets curious and looks at it right away.
  3. If there is no chance of getting a position over the summer or you need to approach a specific person to get a chance, you get to hear it right away.

Check their website first if they have any policy on it for students wanting a position like you are looking for. If they do, follow that protocol. If not, the above protocol is fair game.

If there is no published e-mail of the person you want to contact, contact the general e-mail of the institution and ask for the researcher you want to contact. You might get a secretary that ask you to mail, in that case just mail.

I expect academics to disagree with this advice. They don't want to be called by students and want to let requests like this linger in their inbox for days or weeks until they have a moment. However in my experience calling works anyway, and academics prioritize people who called over people who only mail.

  • 1
    This is why I don't answer my phone when I'm not expecting a call. – Michael Hoffman Oct 31 '16 at 19:28
  • @MichaelHoffman fair policy, and if the person isn't picking up the phone, indeed the only good option is to e-mail anyway – dimpol Nov 1 '16 at 8:10

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