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This is a follow up to the question Is it possible take take part in a research project if I'm not a part of a university?

I'm a student who has not yet entered college (though I am planning to as soon as I graduate highschool; that's a little ways away now though) located in the United States. I am old enough to legally work (just to clarify) and I'm interested in doing research. I've been teaching myself various subjects in math, physics, and programming/computer science (I've learned how to program in Python, the basics of calculus and linear algebra, and I'm reading about quantum computing, for example). Reading the question linked above, the advice seemed to be to contact a professor, whether through family, at conferences, or by emailing, and that it was certainly possible. I don't have any family that is in academia, and I can't exactly attend conferences (though I might try to attend some open talks that the nearest university gives, though that's a bit of a long shot) so the best option seems to be to email them.

What information do I need to give the professor? I've read about a CV, but my educational record is, you know, Kindergarden through 8th grade (with straight A's, but, you know, plenty of people get that) and the electives I've taken haven't yet differentiated much, and they won't until around 10th grade. I have taught myself a decent amount, but I don't know how to convey that information. I've found several professors at a university near me that I'd be interested in working with, and I'm working through some of their papers, so I can talk semi-educatedly about their research (hopefully, anyway). I also have an idea for a research topic that I've been working on for a bit in the field of quantum computing.

Should I try to compose some version of a CV? Should I explain that I'm teaching myself various subjects, and am interested in their research, perhaps referencing some question I have about one of their papers and/or stuff I'm working on? I assume you're not really supposed to say, "Dear Professor so-and-so, Can I work with you?" I also assume they're not going to take reputation on stack exchange as any sign of intelligence. =)

Tl;dr, how can I a. get a professor to take me seriously and b. have a shot at getting accepted as a volunteer or assistant or summer intern or whatever for the professor/lab/group? Or should I not be emailing them (instead calling them, setting up an appointment, whatever)?

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    I'm not familiar with your country (US?) but probably your best bet would be that of passing through your high school professors: maybe some of them have contacts in a nearby university. – Massimo Ortolano Mar 19 '17 at 16:41
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    I was in your situation last year. I'm a high school student and have interned in some pretty prestigious labs; I've almost never been turned down as most labs dont mind having a talented high schooler to work on something of use. Send your target professor an extremely well written email in which you sound intelligent, very informed about the subject and demonstrate your ability to think about it, i.e. your ideas. I wouldn't say you need a CV. Chances are you'll be successful. But you won't know if you don't try. If you want to talk more, email me at aclscientist[at]gmail[dot]com – theideasmith Mar 19 '17 at 19:47
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    "I might try to attend some open talks that the nearest university gives, though that's a bit of a long shot" -- Can you help me understand why that's a long shot? I have known a high schooler with math precocity and strong interest, similar to what you've described. He audited a university class, attended some seminars, and attended a Johns Hopkins summer program; through these activities, he was able to build up his credibility to where he would be taken seriously. Also, these activities enabled him to find mentors. – aparente001 Mar 19 '17 at 22:47
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    Oh a piece of advice that I wish I had been told earlier was to be very particular about developing a rigorous as opposed to an intuitive understanding of the math you learn autodidactically. It will help to sharpen your mind and enable you to actually formulate ideas rigorously as opposed to only thinking about them from an intuitive standpoint in your independent research. – theideasmith Mar 19 '17 at 23:01
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    There are always options available for smart, passionate, hard-working people. When I was at Fermilab in Illinois they had a summer program for high-school kids - I am pretty sure they still have it. And they actually did research! I have been mentoring myself a sophomore year student for a summer, and she was able to do real, and interesting, work. – famargar Mar 20 '17 at 9:58
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You might want to try aiming a bit lower, such as those schools that don't have graduate programs.

At these types of places, where it is difficult for professors to even get any students (let alone the top undergraduates) involved in their research program, some professors may actually want to bring on board a high school / junior high student, if for no other reason than to impress some administrative type (dean, department head, etc.) that this particular professor is engaging in some form of outreach (you know, to help spread the word about the program to get students excited about going to school there).

Just send an email to someone involved in the area you are interested in, attach a CV *, and briefly explain your aims. If the school is close by to you, you could also arrange an in-person visit. For the in-person visit route, if you are indeed interested in attending the school for your undergraduate degree, I suggest you indicate this fact when you attempt to setup the meeting.

Good luck.


* In your CV, you can briefly summarize your self-study progress and plans, your research interests, any projects you've undertaken on your own, and the like, if you don't have any formal educational training in the research area of interest, any papers published, etc.

  • Thank you, this is a great answer! Would you mind elaborating a bit though on what to include in a CV when you don't have much educational background and no publications? – heather Mar 19 '17 at 18:11
  • @heather Yes, I have updated my answer to address your concern. – Mad Jack Mar 19 '17 at 18:31
  • I guess with this type of places as an alternative, one should be careful it is an actually engaging program and not a 'dead' or boring project where the professor isn't simply trying to satisfy unrelated demographic requirements? – Pysis Mar 20 '17 at 19:53
  • @Pysis Yes, indeed. As with anything in life, it's a good idea to make sure that what you are getting yourself into is actually worth getting into in the first place. – Mad Jack Mar 21 '17 at 14:45
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I think the biggest obstacle you face is convincing a professor that you are a good investment of his/her time. Quantum computing is a tough subject even for advanced undergraduates and graduate students, so I think the default response for any professor to an 8th grader would be one of skepticism that you have the basic skills to be an asset to his/her research. In other words, will you be able to contribute enough to a project to justify the time and effort the professor will invest in you?

One slightly unconventional approach would be to try lower on the academic totem pole. Do the professors you identified have any graduate or undergraduate students? Do they work in a department that has an academic coordinator? These people may be more responsive to emails, more willing to talk with you, or better abled to point you to other people (key word is may). If you can impress a professor's graduate student with your initiative, skills, etc., this could be a way to get your foot in the door.

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I actually did roughly what you're after back when I was in high school. I ended up working in a chemistry lab at the local university from my sophomore year through the summer after my senior year---and got paid pretty well to boot! While not the same field as what you're after, hopefully you can learn from some of my experiences. As most of the other answers are from a professor's perspective, I'll try to give my recollections from the high school point of view (rather than my thoughts as a current PhD candidate).

  • I found this job via networking with a family friend that was working as a post-doc in a different lab (same department). The "hiring process" consisted of meeting with the professor for a 45 minute talk before being welcomed aboard and given a tour of the lab. As with many jobs, networking beats cold-calling almost every time. Even if it's not your "dream research group," see if you can't get your foot in the door by seeing if anyone is hiring for "Research Assistants" or "Laboratory Technicians." Large research groups will sometimes even have listings for such things.
  • Try to strike a balance and not oversell your abilities. As you mention, you have a large number of accomplishments, especially compared to your peers. Keep in mind, though, that you are looking to join a research group that will have people with years of formal schooling and research experience. As an analogy, you have probably figured out that (some) of your teachers don't take it kindly when you prove them wrong in front of the class; a similar level of tact is useful here as well. You're asking to join their research group!
  • When you reach out to professors and hopefully meet with them, try to sell why you would be beneficial to their group. In my case, the first year or so I spent in the lab was very much laboratory tech / assistant work---cleaning glassware, updating MSDS sheets, organizing the stockroom, updating the website, etc. However, I was proving myself to be a known and helpful quantity and learning everything I could about all of the ongoing research projects. This slowly transitioned into helping perform experiments and eventually designing and running experiments that were helpful for the research that others had going on. In comparison, don't necessarily be expected to be "handed to keys" to whatever multi-million dollar machines are around on the first day.
  • Learn everything you can. There's an amazing amount of information you can pick up by attending lab meetings or asking different researchers about what they're working on (and especially where to learn more). Even if you're doing "grunt work," make the most of it!

The professor in charge of the research group ended up writing me an awesome letter of recommendation when I was applying for university as well as writing letters of introduction to several people at the university I chose. This helped me start working in a lab on the first day of my freshman year in a new city on the opposite side of the country, rather than being just another face in a large lecture hall. In addition to keeping on top of my own coursework, the experience of working in a research lab was probably the most productive thing I did with my time in high school.

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Universities often have outreach programs specifically aimed at high school students like you, who are ready to dip a toe in the waters of college-level research and coursework. You're probably going to have better luck going through one of those programs than contacting professors directly. Professors are very, very busy as a rule, and notorious for not responding to email from their own students in a timely fashion, let alone from people they've never heard of before.

This google search brings up several such programs at Iowa State that might be relevant to you.

There are also a number of summer "camps" for high school students in the sciences that you might consider applying to. I can personally recommend SSP.

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What information do I need to give the professor? It certainly wouldn't hurt to have a resume of some sort on hand to give to a university professor. If you have entered in Robotics competitions, math competitions, science bowls, etc. it wouldn't hurt to include those as well. Really anything to prove that you are serious and really interested in the topic.

However, in all reality, it would be difficult for a professor to focus his/her time on giving you an internship or research opportunity when you are competing against many other University students who probably are more knowledgeable and have more experience than you. (I tried doing that in high school - emailing professors and such to try and improve my chances of getting accepted to college and none of them responded.) In addition, the University probably would be more favorable towards their own students rather than someone in high school. I think that your best bet would be to start joining summer camps and such offered by your local university. Research how to be involved in such activities. When I was in high school, I was part of my Robotics team and there were competitions at my state university. This gave me a good chance to meet with the college students there who were present and get an idea for what the topic is really about. Even though I never met a college professor at these events it definitely provided opportunities to really experience "research" without being so formal.

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In the US, the easy option is for you to walk into the department at your university of interest and speak to the department secretary. Tell her who you are, and what your goals are. Be friendly.

He/She might know which member of faculty you should speak with, and might even be able to help you set up a meeting.

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Check out the 3rd author of this top-quality conference research paper: https://www.usenix.org/conference/fast17/technical-sessions/presentation/chen

I was pretty floored when I realized a high school student was involved in a university research project. This is another example that proves it can happen; if you contact a university and they tell you what a bad idea it is, point them at this!

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    For a more extreme example, Arthur L. Rubin published a paper in Fundamenta Mathematicae (a well respected mathematics journal) at age 13. – Dave L Renfro Mar 21 '17 at 19:03
  • OK, forget Nelson, point them at this one :) – Fred Douglis Mar 21 '17 at 19:09
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First of all congratulations for your will to set high targets. Based on your question I suspect that you are more advanced than typical for your age.

Maybe you could try to contact institutions which support high IQ persons. (e.g. https://www.mensa.org/, or http://www.triplenine.org/). They might help you with contacts to universities. Like in every job search, personal connections can be very helpfull.

  • Thank you for your response; I'm not currently in Mensa or any such institution, but I'll try to contact them. – heather Mar 20 '17 at 12:01
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    @heather Don't set your expectations too high for Mensa. They're a society that accepts most of the top 10% of the population (their 2% claim is bogus) that's pretentious enough to want to be identified by a metric like IQ, making them a boring lot. People who're actually doing intellectual things, e.g. researchers and innovators, are far more interesting company. 'course, nothing beats checking something out for yourself, so joining and talking to them can be an interesting life experience. – Nat Mar 21 '17 at 9:00

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