We get a lot of requests from undergrads to work in our lab. Being as busy as researchers are we will only take one look at your email request for a research position. And if you don’t follow these five guidelines of email etiquette yours will likely go unnoticed.
Professors and graduate students don’t have time to meet with every undergraduate who wants to do research with them. So, the main form of application you should follow is via email.
1. Don’t over do it
Don’t bullshit us. We don’t need an ego boost (it’s already too big) and when you use flowery language it comes off as insincere.
Let’s visit an example of an email I have received:
I am writing to you as a freshman student with a major in biochemistry and a fervor for the biological and chemical nature of medical research….I was introduced to your research from presentations from your aspirational students…
Knowing BLANK well I was able to gain insight into your thriving research…
…I assure you that I will gain knowledge and provide my endless dedication towards your enthralling research project.
Thank you very much,
The student has good intentions and is doing many things right (which will be discussed below), but they over did it with the words “fervor” “aspirational” “thriving” and that whole last sentence there. Yeah…that one was hard to read without feeling embarrassed for the student.
But they did many things correct.
2. The introduction
Ideally you know the professor from a class you have taken with them (and hopefully did well in), but that doesn’t have to be the case. Like Student X, you should tell the professor who you are, what your major and year is, and how you found out about their research.
That’s it. You don’t need to give us a full explanation as to why you think our research is the best thing since sliced bread. We will ask that question after the initial vetting process.
See that was easy, right?
3. Keep the email short and send in advance
1 paragraph. 4-5 sentences max. Total. That’s it.
We won’t think you aren’t smart or insincere. We will appreciate that you realize how to be concise and save us from trying to decipher your lengthy email.
But don’t wait until the last minute to send the email. These things take time. Often we forget you even emailed and it shows up in our unread box a week later. And absolutely don’t send these emails around the beginning of a semester. You are asking to get lost in the herd if you do that.
4. Attach your transcript and future classes
Even if you have a blemish on your transcripts make sure to attach them to your initial email. Otherwise we have to ask for them and it will take more time.
Also let us know what classes you will be taking in the next year. This shows planning on your part. And at some universities there is a big difference between the organic chemistry taught to the pre-med students and that given for the chemistry majors. So if you want to do any sort of organic chemistry, make sure you are taking the right courses.
You can attach a resume/CV, but be careful!
Often times students include way too much and most of it isn’t related to skills needed to do research. And we can figure out pretty quick from your CV if you are a pre-med student. For some labs that is an automatic rejection to do research.
The thought is that you won’t be dedicated enough to the lab and the research to put in the time necessary to make the time we spend training you worth it. That said, I have personally trained two students who are going to med school and both were great. Both will end up on publications.
5. Be ruthlessly persistent
If you don’t hear back within 1-2 weeks forward your original email to the professor and nicely ask if they had a chance to read your email.
Still nothing? Try to contact one of the graduate students either through email or by hanging around outside their lab (not always possible). Even better, find out if the lab has a lab manager. They are your golden ticket to a research position if they like you….or your worst enemy if you rub them the wrong way (we’ll cover that in a future post).
Still nothing? Try to track the professor down in person. Maybe they have a class at a certain time so you know they will be in their office after.
A rejection is only another opportunity
I started working in a biochemistry lab after being on campus for only 2 months. That’s right, I was a new Freshman with no GPA record, no impressive list of classes that showed my interest in research, and certainly no real idea what academic research was.
But I was determined to get a job in a research lab…and I did.
Yep. That’s right. I was the dishwasher. Or laboratory technician if we are being fancy.
It wasn’t a glamorous job. I had to wash some pretty stinky glassware, clean up after messy grad students, and feel stupid when I didn’t know all the terminology being thrown around.
And I wouldn’t have traded that experience for anything.
It got my foot in the door of a great research lab with an awesome professor who eventually gave me the freedom to pursue a whole new avenue of research in the lab. I was there for all 4 years and got interviews from great grad schools all thanks to starting off as a dishwasher.
More importantly for me was that I became apart of the scientific community. Both in our lab and from going to conferences.
So if you get rejected ask about volunteering to get a sense of what goes on in academic research.
Then ask questions. Lots of pointed questions regarding what everyone is working on.
After a semester try again to see if they will let you at least shadow a grad student. This leads to getting that coveted research position you always wanted!
Moral of the story is: Show them you want it more than anyone else.
Best of luck,