Narrowing the field
Every faculty member’s research usually centers on some core research questions – do these questions resonate with your personal interests? Use Google Scholar or the UC Davis library online databases to look up the faculty member’s recent publications and read them. Generate a ranked list of potential mentors based on your searches. Write down your own research questions; do not be embarrassed if your questions seem basic or vague – this is how the scientific process begins!
Preparing your credentials
Faculty know that for many students college marks the first opportunity to engage in scientific research. So including your work and academic background is important. Many of the skills essential to your previous jobs, like time management, attention to detail and ability to handle responsibilities will be essential to success in a research environment.
A potential mentor expects you to be new to science, but will want to see that you can articulate clearly the specific areas of science you are interested in pursuing.
Email is a good way to make initial contact with potential mentors. By sending an email you give a mentor a chance to review your materials before responding. Make sure your message is free of spelling or grammatical errors. Use formal language, and keep it brief. It is also fine to phone or stop by a potential mentor’s office hours to ask about a research experience.
When you are writing your email, consider the following:
- Researchers are busy people, so keep your email short and to the point.
- Use the mentor’s official title (e.g. Professor or Dr.).
- Specifically refer to the areas of the mentor’s research that you find interesting, and tell them briefly why you are interested in your own words.
- Be clear that you are looking for research experience. Clearly identify your main goal (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. prior experience, specific lab skills already used in the researcher’s lab, the number of hours per week you can devote, specific courses you have completed that are relevant to the research at hand).
- Show enthusiasm for learning how to do research (there is no expectation you will do it perfectly at this point, but you should be eager to learn)!
- Request that if the mentor is not able to take an undergraduate researcher, that she/he recommend a colleague to connect with.
You may wish to attach the following to your email:
- An up-to-date copy of your resume that highlights the skills you have to contribute to the lab
- An estimate of the number of hours/credits you are available to do research and when you would like to begin
- A brief overview of your academic credentials (e.g. your GPA and relevant coursework), or attach a PDF of your unofficial transcript;
- Your complete contact information (email, phone, mail)
Things to avoid:
- Do not write one email and send it to all research mentors regardless of how they differ in their research interests. Form emails are easy to spot and easier to delete. Make sure each email is short, personal and captivating.
- Do not expect an answer immediately. Give your potential research mentor 3-5 days to respond.
- Do follow-up if your email goes unanswered. Researchers are busy people who receive numerous inquiries about their research daily. Be polite, but persistent and resend your email if you have not heard back in a week or so. Remember that many researchers travel during the summer months, so you should time your email inquiries carefully.
A first meeting
If you are invited to meet with a potential research mentor, here are some tips to make a great first impression.
- Be on time, be yourself and be enthusiastic and motivated.
- Be ready to discuss why you want to do research in general and why you want to do research with this mentor specifically.
- Read about the researcher’s work before you meet. The college’s faculty directory is a great tool to get acquainted with faculty. Read one or two of the researcher’s papers and prepare questions. Generally, mentors will not 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 researchers in the lab (e.g. time commitment, credits offered, type of work). In general, three to five hours of research per week is worth one academic credit.
- Ask about who would be your direct mentor in the group. Often student researchers work with postdoctoral scholars or graduate students and you may only have limited contact with the researcher themselves.
- Bring a copy of your unofficial transcripts if you have not already submitted one.
Research groups have limited space, so it may be difficult to find a research mentor that is seeking or willing to take on other students. Do not take it personally if they decline your request! You may go through many potential mentors before you find a good match.