Ask a Professor: How to Ask Your Professor for Research

Research experience can boost your grad school apps and job prospects. Learn how to ask a professor about research opportunities and positions.

portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published August 23, 2022

Edited by Tyler Epps
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Ask a Professor: How to Ask Your Professor for Research
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Many colleges encourage students to gain research experience. And undergraduate research isn't only for STEM majors. If you're in the social sciences, the humanities, education, business, or a variety of other disciplines, you can pursue research opportunities in college.

At most schools, you'll need to seek out research opportunities proactively. That often means contacting professors directly to ask about research positions. But how can you find professors who supervise undergraduate research assistants? And what's the best way to ask a professor for a research opportunity?

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Ready to start your journey?

Reasons to Ask for Research Opportunities

Why should you pursue research opportunities in college? Gaining research experience provides multiple benefits. For one, you can use research positions to explore career paths and make decisions about your future.

If you're considering grad school, research experience can help your grad school applications stand out. And on the job market, your research experience demonstrates in-demand skills like analytical thinking, collaboration, and attention to detail.

Fortunately, college students benefit from many opportunities to gain research experience. Your university might offer internships or independent research courses for credit. Many professors hire paid research interns or research assistants.

You'll likely also see volunteer research opportunities.

Can You Cold Email About Research?

Should you only email professors you know from class? Or can you send a cold email to a professor? Start by seeing whether professors in your major offer research opportunities.

It's common for professors to receive emails from students they don't know personally, so feel free to cast a wide net. Prospective graduate students in particular often contact professors without any prior connection.

However, it helps if you can establish a link with the professor. Mention if another professor, academic advisor, or grad student recommended that you reach out to them.

5 Steps to Take Before Asking a Professor About Research

Sending an email before doing your research can backfire. Busy professors often receive multiple research requests from students every week.

Take these steps before contacting professors to increase your chances of securing a research position.

Step 1: Look for Posted Research Openings

Before sending a cold email to a professor to ask about research positions, search for posted openings. Many universities list undergraduate and graduate research opportunities on their websites.

Review the list and learn more about the positions. Once you find a good match, look into the professor's background and get in touch with them.

Step 2: Talk to Your Academic Advisor

Many universities encourage undergraduate research, particularly at research universities. These institutions often have an office of undergraduate research that connects students with open positions.

Before contacting professors directly, meet with your academic advisor to ask about research opportunities. Your school might have a system to connect students with faculty members. A recommendation from your academic advisor can help get your foot in the door.

Step 3: Research the Professor

What's the professor's current research area? What have they published recently?

Before contacting a professor about research opportunities, do your homework. Look into the professor's research fields and learn as much as possible about their current topics.

You can often find this information on the professor's personal or departmental website. Many professors include a curriculum vitae that lists research areas, recent courses, and recent publications.

Check out the professor's recent publications. Visit your university library to access journal articles. And take notes and prepare questions to show your enthusiasm for the opportunity.

Step 4: Contact Grad Students

Some professors receive many requests for research positions, particularly professors running large labs or research groups. So consider reaching out to the professor's graduate students first.

Graduate students can recommend undergrad researchers to the professor. Or the grad student might welcome research assistance from an undergraduate.

Step 5: Be Clear About What You Want

Are you looking for an internship position? Do you want a paid research assistant job? Or are you hoping to get credit for an independent research class?

Ensure you know what you want from the opportunity before contacting the professor. The clearer you can be in your initial contact, the greater chance you'll have for success.

How to Ask a Professor for Research Opportunities

Once you've done your research, it's time to reach out to the professor. A concise, focused email is often the best way to learn whether you're a good fit for the position.

Make sure to hit the following key points while customizing the email based on the professor and their research.

Introduce Yourself

Take the time to explain who you are and why you're reaching out. Mention your year and major. Add your university if you're at a different school than where the professor teaches.

Make sure to personalize the email by opening with "Dear Prof. X" or "Dear Dr. Y." Check their university bio or website to see what title they use.

Express Interest in the Research

Show professors you've done your homework. Tell them how you came across their research and why you're interested in pursuing research opportunities with them.

Next, explain why you're a good fit. Share your experience in the field and mention any specific qualifications. If you're applying for a posted research position, show how your background and strengths match the posting.

Treat this like a job application, and sell yourself!

Share Your Goal

After explaining what you can bring to the research project, express what you hope to gain from the position. Are you planning to apply to graduate school in this field? Does the research relate to your career goals?

Whether you're a first-year undergraduate or a Ph.D. candidate, showcase yourself in a positive light. Use the contact to demonstrate your professionalism and dedication.

Include Next Steps

End your contact by offering to meet with the professor. You can suggest stopping by their next office hours or schedule to meet at a convenient time for the professor.

Before sending the email, read it carefully for typos and grammar errors. You want to make a good impression, so use a positive, professional, and respectful tone. Avoid coming across as entitled.

And don't forget to thank the professor for their time.

How to Email a Professor About Research: Templates

Struggling with how to email a professor about research opportunities? Here are a couple of examples that cover the main points. Make sure to avoid sending generic messages by speaking to the professor's research and your background.

Research Request Email Example 1

Hello Dr. X,

I'm a second-year computer science major and recently took your course on data structures. The course sparked an interest in data management and visualization.

My academic advisor mentioned an undergraduate research opening at the data lab you manage. I have completed the prerequisite courses listed in the posting, and I believe my experience working in the campus library exemplifies my attention to detail.

I have attached my resume and an unofficial transcript. Please let me know if I can provide any additional information. I'd also appreciate scheduling a meeting if you have availability, or I can stop by your office hours on Wednesday.

Thank you for your time.

Best,

Colin Computer

Research Request Email Example 2

Dear Prof. Y,

I am a third-year biology major planning to apply to medical school next year. Your grad student Jane Smith recommended reaching out about research opportunities in your lab. I am especially interested in your current research on genetic plant evolution and enjoyed your paper in the Journal of Plant Biology.

Would it be possible to complete an independent research course for credit in your lab next semester? I've attached an unofficial transcript and CV for your review. I can stop by your office hours next week to discuss the opportunity.

Best,

Becky Biology

After Sending a Research Request Email

You send a perfectly crafted email — but never hear back from the professor. What should you do next?

Remember that professors get multiple research requests, and many simply do not have the space or time to take on new research assistants.

It might take multiple emails to find the right fit. Keep researching opportunities, and consider contacting your academic advisor or your school's office of undergraduate research to learn about other positions.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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