3 tips on how to find your first research mentor

academic advice High School mentorship research
By Pav

Are you an undergraduate or high school student looking for your first research mentor? Doing research is an incredible experience that teaches you to look at the world in a different way, work together in teams, plan out tasks for hours, days, weeks and even months in advance but, most of all, research teaches you patience. That last lesson begins from the very moment you decide to get into a lab – it will take time. However, here are a few tips that might help you get your first response and (hopefully) research experience. And above all, do not forget, all you need is one professor to agree to work with you and you will be off to the races! 

Cast a wide net and target new labs. 

Something that many young students do when applying for their first research experience is search for a specific professor that may have gotten them interested in scientific discovery. While this may work out in some situations, those specific professors may not have the space to take on a new student. It is of the utmost importance to email many professors to try and get a few responses. One way to do this is to simply find broad topics that you might be interested in and emailing some to all the professors in your department that fit that topic. If you find that you are suddenly juggling a few offers, congrats!! Now is the time when you get to be pickier and decide which project/mentor you find most interesting. But until then, my best advice is to cast a wide net. 

One group of professors that might be most amenable to taking on new students are ones who have just started their labs. Usually, you can look at a department’s webpage and find out who they recently hired. If not, you can look at professors with the rank of “assistant professor” as they are still typically on the newer side. These investigators usually have more time, just received funding from the university for a bunch of ideas they have but few to no people in their lab to work on the ideas. Speaking from experience, these labs can be some of the best training grounds as you get very close mentorship from the professor and may get to have independence on projects earlier by being one of the lab’s founding members. 

Read a recent paper and tell them specifically what project(s) in their lab that interest you. 

You have found a professor that you want to email, but do not know what to include in the message. One of the best ways to show that you are genuinely interested in the professor’s work is to read a paper they have recently published and mention what about that work got you interested. Even better, a recent trend in, specifically biology, research is to place manuscripts before they have gone through peer review on an online server called biorXiv. The manuscripts on this repository are likely the most up-to-date work that a professor is publicly disclosing, and you can look extremely motivated simply by finding those papers. A common mistake is to only look at a lab website that, newsflash, may not have been updated in the past decade or so. The research interests posted their have likely changed quite dramatically and so you would look like every other person emailing the professor if you were to only use the website. This is not to say that you should not look at the website. The main questions the lab is interested in will still be reflected in the synopsis on the website and, more importantly, you should look at the “contact us” section about the exact requirements the professor has in terms of what they want you to include in your email. 

After going through the paper, the ideal situation is that you are absolutely in love with that project and want to work on the follow ups to that study. In that case, say that! But in the case you do not necessarily love that project, but do like some of the other projects mentioned on the website, you can either read one of the lab papers on that project or simply mention in the email what projects peak your interest the most. 

But Pav, based on Tip #1, I need to send a lot of emails...but now I need to read a paper for each lab? The short answer is yes. If you want to stand out in your email, reading a paper is one of the easiest ways to do so. However, I did not necessarily say how much of the paper you should read. You simply need to read enough of the paper to find something that sparks your interest enough so that you can write it in the email. Now before you start rewording the title and including that, I would recommend at least getting through the abstract and introduction, but every person will find their style of doing this.  


So, you have found a professor that has just started, you read their most recent paper and find it absolutely engaging. You carefully craft an email and mention why you are interested in working their lab. You press the dreaded send button and then begin the worst part of the cycle, you wait. For the first few minutes, you try to distract yourself with that day’s WORDLE but inevitably check your email for a response. Minutes become hours and then days. After two weeks, you have given up, but I would say, do not!! 

One thing you will quickly find out is that professors are constantly getting hundreds of emails for all of their meetings, collaborators, predatory journals, etc. Your email can very easily get lost in that mess and so I would highly recommend sending a gentle prod after ~2 weeks. Something as simple as:

“I hope that you are doing well! I just wanted to bump this email in case it got lost in your inbox. I am very excited about the prospect of meeting you and would love to hear more about your research. Thank you so much.” 

I would not necessarily recommend doing this for every lab that you send an email to, just the ones that you are most interested in. And do not keep sending such emails to the same professor. If after one reminder, the professor still has not seen your brilliance, it is time to put your efforts towards another. Remember, there are many fish in the sea. 

Good luck and happy researching! 

Pav graduated magna cum laude with a BSE in Chemical and Biological Engineering and minors in Engineering Biology and Global Health Policy from Princeton. He is now an MD-PhD student at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.


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