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What do should I do with my life? How do I get there?

If you are like most of us, you have these questions and more. You might have no idea what you want to do for a career in the future. Or maybe you know what you want to do but are unsure how to get there. Every person's path is individual, but there are alot of tips and tricks that are common to all paths that can help you along your way. In this blog, I try to pass along some of the bits of wisdom and jetsom that I've accumulated lo these many years (!) to help you on your road to success. Search for the topic you need, suggest new topics, send me questions. Dr. A is in.

Monday, May 3, 2010

How to ask a professor for a research position

Oh my dears, my dears.  This is perhaps a topic most prickly to my soul. Truly a pet peeve of mine.  I cannot tell you how often I get letters that look something like this:

I am a sophomore, that is interested in microfluidics.  I would like to work in your lab next quarter.  Do you have any positions available?


My first reaction when getting a mail like this is to trash it without reply. We are busy people.  This message looks to me like a mass mailing that didn't take the person but 2 seconds to send, so I'm not giving it more than 2 seconds of my attention. Oh, I am so harsh!  But that is the reality, my chicks.  If you sent something like this to an industry recruiter they would do the same thing.  Actually, no, they would probably spend no more that a millisecond on it, not even a whole 2 seconds.

Ok, let's take Dr. A's magic invisible ink revealer and go over that e-mail to show what went wrong. In between the asterisks is the story between the lines...


Hi ****oh!  how much we old people hate this practice!  Who is this letter intended for?  there is no personalization whatsoever.  No title, no formal language.  Back in the day, they used to teach etiquette for how to compose business letters but that practice seems to have languished because I see this too often, so listen to me, grasshoppers!  Young, you are.  But foolish, you must not be!  When writing a professional letter, e-mail, text, ALWAYS address the person by a name and title appropriate with their position.  If you write to a professor say "Dear Dr. Terrific". If you write to a nonPhD use the right title for that person like "Dear Mr. Wonderful" or "Dear Ms. Great". Do not use informal greetings unless you know the person really well.  So it's not "Hi you", it's "Dear Dr. Marvelous".****

I am a sophomore ****class level is good to share, but letting them know your major is helpful also****, that is interested in microfluidics ****"ok, this is great, but my lab does not do anything related to microfluidics.  So right away I am thinking you did not even bother to read my website, or look up any of my papers, begging the question--why do you want to work in my lab? You don't want to pick any old random lab to work in, you want to pick some lab that has a combination of traits that you want, either the research is fascinating or you really want to work with the people.  And you need to convey this information to the reader. If you don't add something personal to it, it looks like a mass mail spam.****.  I would like to work in your lab next quarter.****this is ok to include, but many labs want a year commitment or atleast a couple quarters.  One quarter is very short. Also there is no time flexibility given here, why next quarter?  Are you just trying to get units, any units? That make you much less interesting to invest in."**** Do you have any positions available?**** sadly, by the time you get to asking this question I have already lost interesting in replying to you.***

thanks ****Another business etiquette issue. Who is this message from?  How do I get in contact with them?  Sure it came as an e-mail, but that does not always include a full name.  And what if I want to call instead?  End the letter the same way  you started with a professional greeting, indicating clearly who the letter is from and all the ways to get in contact with you. Something like "Best regards, Student X,, 530-555-5555,"****
See?  Such a short note and so many ways it went wrong.  So what does it take to get an undergrad research position?  It's not that hard.  It will take only a little more effort than this short note above, and it will get alot better results. Write a nice letter.  A NICE letter:

1. Starts with a professional greeting and addresses the recipient by name and title
2. Talks about specific projects in the lab that interest you and gives a reason why you want to work for that lab.  Look up a couple papers from that lab and mention something that you were interested by.  Why do you want to work for this lab?  Try to convey in the letter why you were excited by the idea and motivated enough to send a message about it.  Otherwise it looks like spam.  Especially if your major or interests don't seem to match what the lab does at all; you need to explain why you want to work in that lab anyway.
3. Includes information about yourself sufficient to pique interest.  Do you have an outstanding GPA?  Do you have skills in some area that will of use to the research?  Are you quick learner?  Do your career goals tie in with the lab in any way?  Have you done well in classes relating to this lab's research focus? Mention these things.
4. Offer a timeline of when you might be available. Like you would like to start as soon as possible and would work for a year or more.  Or you can only work summer, but you could work full time in the summer.  Give the professor some options of when you could be brought in.
5. End with polite statement thanking the reader for considering your request and proposing some method of followup (will write again in week month, will talk to you after class any time, etc etc)

And just to keep in mind, my tiny tiny mousies, all this chastising has a reason behind it.  Professors like to have interested, engaged people working in their labs and we field requests all the time. Something has to make your request stand out from the pack.  The average undergrad takes maybe an entire quarter just to train to use specific instruments related to the project, and then takes another 1-2 quarters to become comfortable enough in the lab to make useful contributions.  And this means that people already in the lab will be taking the time to teach you how to do things.  When it works well this is a great experience and you will learn lots of new things, and provide a fresh perspective to problems, and start to contribute new ideas that you could work on as an independent project. But the sheer amount of time and effort it takes to train you to that point makes professors want to be sure that the people they bring in are truly interested in what the lab does.

So make sure your letter conveys why you want to work in my lab. MY lab.  Not the lab next door, not the lab across campus, but MY lab.  Woo us, my beauties, it's simple as that.

There is a song that I like, because it is so funny amongst other things, that sort of reminds me of the situation we have been discussing in this post and it goes something like this:

Lovestruck Romeo
Walks the streets a serenade
He's laying everybody low
With the love song that he made
Finds a convenient street light
Steps out of the shade
Says something like, "You and me, babe.  How 'bout it?"

"You and me, babe. How 'bout it"? Not very effective wooing---don't be sending us letters like that! 

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