Research for undergraduates

Hints to undergraduates for writing a strong email to faculty about research positions                                                                                                    February 4, 2019

*Note that although this is written for undergraduates at Berkeley, it should be applicable to those in any other institution where research opportunities exist*

There is nothing better than engaging in research as an undergraduate if you are considering a career in science. The earlier you start, the better. Research can be boring and exhausting, and not everyone enjoys the process. The sooner you discover if this is something you want to engage in further, the more opportunity there is for meaningful engagement during your Berkeley undergraduate career (e.g. honors projects, independent research, conference presentations, and publications). The first (and often most daunting) step in starting your research trajectory, is identifying and joining a lab.

Berkeley has an incredible breadth of research groups, and it will take some time to determine which one(s) you’d be most excited about joining. If you are unsure about this, there are many opportunities for you to apply more broadly to particular research programs (such as URAP, Biology Scholars, REU opportunities and so forth). If, however, you are ready to start research and have a good idea of the type of work you might want to do, there is never a wrong time to reach out to faculty members. If you do this, the email you write is often key to success. Below, I outline the type of information you should include in your email, and I strongly suggest you have other people read your email first to offer feedback. After all, you can only make a first impression once.

In your first email to faculty, the key to success is to make it clear you are:

  • specifically interested in this particular lab/line of research;
  • prepared to dedicate a significant amount of time to your research, both in terms of weekly commitment and in longer terms (i.e. future semesters and/or summer work); and
  • bringing something to the table in terms of your own skillset and/or interests.

For many/most faculty, a strong reason and motivation for doing research is much more important than previously developed skills/techniques or GPA, so before writing your email: think broadly about why you want to engage in research (are you considering a research career? Have you always wanted to help solve big societal problems? Are you hoping to attend medical school but want to make sure you understand the scientific process so you can remain up to date in current research?) and what qualities you possess that will make you a great addition to a research team (are you organized, analytical, a quick learner? What traits have allowed you to succeed thus far in other jobs/positions?)

The next step is identifying a few potential faculty mentors/labs. There is no right way to do this, but some possibilities include: asking friends who they’ve enjoyed working with, thinking about professors you’ve interacted with in the classroom, asking faculty with whom you already interact to suggest research groups in area ______, searching through the faculty webpages on the departmental site, and reading scientific papers from groups you are considering joining. Most faculty webpages are full of useful information about the type of work they are doing and what motivates that work.

Once you have identified faculty with whom you might like to work (make sure you have spent time on their webpages!), it’s time to start your email. If you have met/engaged with the faculty or someone from their lab previously, it’s helpful to start the email with that information so they have some context. But note, this is not necessary! The structure of the email should generally be as follows:

Paragraph 1: Who you are. The first paragraph should include information about how far along you are in your studies, what (if any) research experience you have had so far, and why you are writing the email. This can include why you are hoping to engage in research at this time in your undergraduate career, and what your longer term career aspirations are. Note that it is customary at Berkeley to address the email, “Dear Professor ________” unless you know them personally and/or have been told to call them something different.

Paragraph 2: Why you want to join that (specific) lab. As I mention above, faculty webpages are a great resource to understanding the goals/motivation of particular labs – and you need to make it clear that your own interests are in line with those of the group. If you give yourself enough time, it’s a great idea to read some of the recent publications to come out of that group. If you do this, mentioning that you particularly liked paper X, in which they found Y, is a great way of demonstrating that you really thought about the research in that group! The key message from this paragraph should be that you understand what the lab is doing (in a general sense and/or in term of one or two specific projects) and that you want to join that research effort. Your motivation for doing so can be personal (e.g. I’ve always been interested in X) or professional (e.g. I am hoping to further develop my skills in Y), but it is helpful for the faculty to understand why you think their lab would be a good place for you. Again, anything you can do to make clear your email is not a generic email to many professors, but rather a targeted and well thought-out request, will go a long way.

Paragraph 3: What you are looking for in this position. This is where you want to make clear what type of position you are looking for (work-study, volunteer, for credit, etc…) and how many hours (approximately) you would be willing to commit. It is also a good place to mention your longer-term plans for continued engagement. If you are a Sophomore looking for somewhere to work for the next two years and are keen to consider an honor’s thesis, this is the time to say so. It is also sometimes a good idea to state that you are flexible in terms of hours/projects/type of research (but in this case, giving some indication of your preferences is helpful). This paragraph can be short, and can also include a request that if the lab is full but the professor has any ideas for groups doing similar research, you would appreciate the suggestions. This can save you some time and might lead you to a group you wouldn’t have otherwise identified.

Attachments: It is always a good idea to include a resume/CV in your email. This can, but does not need to, include your GPA, courses you’ve taken, and other work experience. There are excellent examples on line, and the Berkeley Career Center (https://career.berkeley.edu) is a great resource to help you craft a strong resume.

Following up: It is important to realize (and prepare yourself for the possibility) that you might not receive a response to your inquiry. Many faculty are busy, and might not have time to tell you that their lab is currently full. However, it might also be the case that your email simply fell off their radar or arrived at an inconvenient time. My advice is to follow up a week later with a polite email, forwarding the original email and stating that you were writing again in the event that your previous email arrived at an inconvenient time (or something to that effect). There is also nothing wrong with sending a third email a week or so later, especially if it is polite. I would suggest stating that you realize they might not have positions open in their lab, and thus you will not bother them again but would appreciate their keeping your application on file in the event that something opens up in the future. Remember that perseverance is a positive trait in research, so reaching out again can often indicate that you are serious about this position.

If you do receive a reply, follow the lead of the professor writing. They might put you in touch with a postdoctoral researcher or graduate student, ask you to come in for an interview, or ask you to go down a more formal route (such as applying to URAP). In the latter case, you should mention your previous correspondence in your future application. They might also say their group is full, in which case it’s always a good idea to ask them to keep you informed of future openings and/or to ask them if there are any other labs doing similar work.

Finally, remember that writing this first email takes a lot of time and can seem daunting, but as you apply to further labs (in the event that the first one is full), you can easily refine your first email to fit new opportunities. Writing these emails, like all things, takes practice and you will get better at this the more time you spend practicing. Good luck, and I wish you great success in your future research endeavors!

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