Where to Start
The first step in obtaining an undergraduate research position is to collect information on what interests you. This can be done by browsing through departmental websites and professor profiles, and jotting down notes on which research themes you find most fascinating.
Try to find three professors you would like to research with, and skim over their most recent publications. You can often find these papers on the professor’s webpage, and this is typically a great way to become more familiar with the specific projects of the lab. It also allows you to demonstrate your knowledge of the professor’s work when communicating with her or him.
After taking a look at the most recent and/or notable works of the professor, compose an email.
The tone of the email should be professional. Greetings such as, ‘Dear Dr. ____’, or ‘Dear Professor,’ are acceptable, and subject headings should be straightforward and concise (e.g. “Interested in Your Research” or “Available Undergraduate Research Positions.”)
Be concise. Professors have busy schedules and many emails to tend to each day. Start by introducing yourself, and stating your interest in the lab. Here you can demonstrate that you’ve taken the initiative to read over some of the professor’s works. It can be helpful to list specific components of their research that you found interesting, and mention how these aspects coincide with your own interests.
Although the tone of the email should remain respectful, do not feel the need to scrutinize each word choice. Allow your voice and enthusiasm to be reflected in your message, as professors enjoy having students who demonstrate excitement to join their lab.
Ask the professor if they would be willing to meet with you, and provide them with dates and times that you are available (this cuts down on unnecessary email tag). Assume that you will meet them in their office but feel free to specify the location of the meeting place.
Keep in mind that professors may be interested in seeing your résumé, so it is never a bad idea to keep an updated copy on file. Undergraduate Career Services offers advice and resources for creating and formatting a résumé.
Any time a professor responds to an email request or agrees to meet with you, be sure to reply, acknowledging that you’ve seen their message and thanking them for taking the time to respond.
Once you have joined a lab, continue to address the professor in a professional manner. Unless a professor tells you that you are free to address them by their first name, always assume a professional greeting.
If you are interested in discontinuing your work in the lab, either email your professor or ask them directly, stating that you wish to discuss your involvement in the lab. No matter which medium you use to initiate the meeting, be sure to have the conversation of lab discontinuation in person. Be honest and state your reasoning, perhaps being that your research interests have simply changed. Always thank the professor for the opportunity to work in their lab, and consider sending them an email afterwards, thanking them again for taking the time to speak with you.
Xuemin (Sheryl) Lu
Undergraduate Research Director
College of Science