How to ask a professor if you can conduct research in their lab

academic advice cold emails mentorship research

You might learn during your classes that your professor's research is quite fascinating. So, naturally, you want to be a part of it! Here are some tips toe help you clinch that research opportunity.

1.) Read, read, read!

You can show interest in a particular lab's research by reading through its publications, which will give you a clearer picture of whether it genuinely piques your curiosity. The questions you have about what you've read can lead to a great conversation with the lab's principal investigator and the start of a fantastic mentorship. Sometimes, publications can come across as too dense and confusing – that is perfectly okay and entirely expected. In fact, by posing those queries to such professors, you can demonstrate both your interest in their work and your thoroughness in investigating their research. This type of reading is only the beginning of your academic career; once you begin doing research, you will frequently read such articles, and showing that you have done so in advance will demonstrate commitment! 

2.) Utilize Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programs

There are often pipeline programs at your university, sometimes called an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (or UROP for short) that can streamline this process for you. These programs are neat because you can possibly earn additional course credit for your work, and they can teach you other skills, such as how to present a poster at a conference. Ask your academic advisor if such a program is available to you. 

3.) Attend Office hours

Attending your professor’s office hours can be a great way to inquire about research opportunities. Here, you can begin with those questions you came up with during your readings. This in-person interaction can lead to an exciting discussion, and if there is no room for you to conduct research, the professor can direct you to a colleague. 

4.) Write a Cold email

Perhaps this professor does not teach your classes – no problem. A well-structured, concise, and informative email can help you get your foot in the door. Ensure you do not send a generic email of interest in conducting research, as you want to distinguish yourself and personalize this email. State who you are (year, field of study, and experience) and your specific motivation for your interest in this particular lab. Make yourself easily accessible for a potential meeting by throwing out specific dates of availability.

As you craft this email, considering the following questions:

  • Do you find any aspects of their research particularly fascinating?
  • Would you like to aid in comprehending a particular issue or problem?
  • Has anything in your previous coursework or research experiences piqued your interest?
  • Do your larger driving forces align with the work being done in this lab?
  • Can you pose a pertinent query about this lab's work?

Do not present this opportunity as just a stepping-stone to graduate school or medical school — this might turn off professors devoted to research that want to recruit students with a shared passion. Make sure you can see yourself being passionate about their research!

5.) Do not give up!

During my sophomore year, when I decided I wanted to work in basic research in the field of biochemistry, I emailed seven labs - only one had space for me. But it was all worth it, as that was the start of a wonderful laboratory experience that lasted until graduation. And the best part is that the mentorship can last well beyond your college years.

Mary Caroline is a Marshall Scholar who holds an MSc in Neuroscience and is pursuing an MSc in Medical Anthropology at the University of Oxford. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration in Neuroscience.


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