Finding a Research Mentor
Identifying Potential Research Mentors
1. Determine what most interests you in your discipline. In other words, define a research area (e.g. molecular biology, materials science, nanotechnology, plasma physics, analytical chemistry, computer architecture, etc.).
2. Do a search of campus websites to identify faculty working in your area of interest. Search through academic program listings, department web sites, student job sites, and undergraduate research databases if they are available. Talk to friends who are already doing research to get their advice about potential mentors. If you're not sure what research area interests you, then start by doing a general review of faculty research in the academic department in which you are majoring. But, don't be afraid to think broadly and explore research outside of your academic department, too!
3. Read the faculty research descriptions and generate a ranked list of potential mentors. Identify at least one thing about each person's research that is interesting to you and that you would like to know more about.
Contacting Potential Mentors
Email is a good way to make initial contact with potential mentors. By sending an email you give the mentor a chance to review your materials before responding. It is like the first step in an interview, so be sure it reflects your best effort (no spelling or grammatical errors!). If you are comfortable, it is also OK to phone or stop by a potential mentor's office to ask about a research experience.
Some things to consider when composing an email:
- Research mentors are very busy people, so keep it short and to the point (approximately 1 paragraph).
- Address the email using the mentor's official title (e.g. Professor, Dr.)
- Specifically refer to the mentor's research, and what you find interesting about it. Be sure to use your own words and not copy text from the research description on his or her web site.
- Be clear that you are looking for a research experience (vs. a dishwashing job) and what your main goal will be (e.g. shadowing someone in the lab to get exposed to research vs. doing an honors thesis research project).
- Highlight what you have to offer; what distinguishes you from other students (e.g. hard worker, experience, eager to learn, willing to stay more than one semester, persistent, specific courses you've completed that are relevant to the research).
- Show enthusiasm for learning how to do research!
- Finally, request that if the mentor is. not able to take an undergraduate researcher, she recommend a colleague who might be able to.
Additional information you could include in an attached letter:
- Share that you are taking the Entering Research workshop series, and attach a copy of the syllabus.
- Give an estimate of the number of hours/credits you can be available to do research, and when you would like to begin, but leave room for negotiation.
- Give a brief overview of your academic credentials (e.g. GPA and relevant courses taken), or attach an electronic transcript.
- Provide your complete contact information (email, phone, mail).
- Show how you are different from other applicants.
Interviewing with Potential Mentors
- Be on time.
- Be yourself. But it will help if you come across as enthusiastic and motivated. Smile!
- Be ready to discuss why you want to do research in general (what are your academic and career goals?), and why you want to do research with this mentor specifically (what is it about his/her research that is interesting to you? Is there a particular project on which you would like to work?).
- Read about the research BEFORE you go to the interview. There is usually a research overview on the web with references and links to the group's published papers. Try to read one or two of these papers, and prepare some questions about them. Generally, mentors won't expect you to fully understand the research, but making the effort to learn about it on your own shows independence and motivation.
- Ask about the expectations of undergraduate researchers in the group (time commitment, credits, type of work). In general, three to five hours of research per week is worth one academic credit. However, this varies and you should ask how many hours the mentor expects per week per credit.
- Ask about who would be your direct mentor in the group (professor, postdoc, graduate student).
- Bring a copy of your transcript if you haven't already submitted one.
It can be challenging to connect with faculty research mentors, so be persistent, yet polite. Ideally, give potential mentors a week to respond to your email before you follow up with a second.
Research groups have limited space, so it may be difficult to find a group that is looking for, or willing to take, another student. Do not take it personally if they decline your request. You may go through all ten (or more) potential mentors before you find a match. Stick with it! You will find someone.
Entering research: A Facilitator’s Manual. Janet Branchaw, Christine Pfund, Raelyn Rediske, 2010. WH Freeman, New York, NY