How (NOT) to Get Involved in Research: Part 1 (Email)
One of the most frequently asked questions that we receive is: How can I get involved in research?/How do I join a lab? If that is you, keep reading for an insider’s perspective on what NOT to do along with some quotes from real students who have emailed me interested in joining our lab.
For a little bit of background, I am responsible for recruiting and helping select any new undergraduate for my research lab. Although every professor chooses new undergraduates differently, Dr. Martin likes me to be the initial point of contact for any interested students. I typically receive 50-80 emails from different students expressing interest, and I try to narrow it down to a few for the graduate students to interview before they meet with Dr. Martin. Undergraduate research requires lots of time and resources, not only for our undergraduates, but also for professors and the other group members as we train, mentor, and invest in you, so we are trying to find students who are just as committed as we are. The tips below may seem obvious, but I have also included a few examples from real emails I have received from students, and I am surprised every year how basic email etiquette is not as common as I had thought. Regardless of the specific application process or research area, following our advice will help YOU keep your email from being automatically rejected.
- DON’T be unprofessional. Even though many research groups are very collegial, be respectful and formal, especially in written communication. This is a work environment, not a student organization or club, so to be taken seriously, be professional.
- Example: “I called my mom after my first day in Chemistry at Baylor telling her how excited I was to be back in class learning all I can about it.”
- Explanation: Most labs have a variety of people working in them, not just undergraduates, including the professor, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers (who already have their Ph.D.), and other research professionals, who are all “real adults” as I like to call them. Although I loved that the student have a great relationship with your mom, it came across as very immature and did not seriously demonstrate his/her commitment to chemistry.
- DON’T disregard instructions. Working with chemicals and performing certain procedures can often be dangerous and/or expensive. If you cannot follow simple instructions during the application process, it is hard to believe that you would follow group members’ instructions in the lab.
- Example: “I’m sorry to bother you, I just had a quick question. Are there any updates concerning the lab or my application? I understand you are very busy, it’s just my curiosity has been eating away at me, haha. Please get back to me when you have a chance.”
- Explanation: For context, this email was sent about 30 minutes after his/her initial email, and I specify in the application to be patient with us as we process a high volume of applications. It is also very unprofessional, and therefore, a quick rejection.
- DON’T only fish for resume building opportunities. Research is not easy, and it takes a lot of grit, persistence, and commitment to persevere through all the waiting, setbacks, and failures inherently part of research. Therefore, in order to be successful, students need to be passionate about the work we are doing, and a few lines on a resume is usually not strong enough motivation when the going gets tough.
- Example: “I am interested in joining the inorganic research lab. I have had a little experience working in a pharmacogenomics Research Center, and I learned many things about genetic variations of DNA caused by certain medications.”
- Explanation: We are a synthetic inorganic group focusing on boron heterocycles…not DNA/genetics/biochemistry. The student clearly did not do any sort of Google search on the research our lab actually performs, and by extension, is not really interested in our work. We do have labs at Baylor who are looking at DNA repair mechanisms, genetic mutations, etc. (and so many other cool research areas), so be sure to do research about the kind of research you might be interested in.
- DON’T forget to proofread. Seriously, please read through your email before sending, and maybe even have someone else look over it too. I cannot repeat this enough: please proofread.
- Example: “I recently received an email through canvas about DrMartins research opportunity. I am a junior biochemistry major with aspirations to go to graduate school and i am deeply interested in this opportunity.”
- Explanation: Research is very detail-oriented, specific, and precise. It seems harsh, but if you do not have the time to double-check a simple email, are you going to have the time to double-check your calculations, keep a detailed lab notebook, or look up chemical safety information? This is what we are thinking when we receive emails full of spelling and grammatical errors.
- DON’T use the wrong name. This is related to my previous point about proofreading, but misspelling someone’s name can feel very disrespectful. I have received so many “Katie” or weird variations of my last name, and it demonstrates a lack of attention to detail and communicates that this opportunity is really not that important to you.
- Related point: If you can, try to use the appropriate title when addressing someone. When in doubt, always err on the side of caution. As an undergraduate, I do not care if someone calls me Kate or addresses me formally as Ms. Rojales, but some people do, so if you can, try to find the person you are emailing on the group or department website.
- Quick reminder: Ms. if for married or unmarried women, Mrs. for married women only, Mr. for all men, and Dr. for anyone with a doctoral degree (including postdocs).
I hope this is a helpful starter guide on how NOT to send an email expressing your interest in joining a lab. Stay tuned for more tips on how to get involved in research, and comment below or contact us if you have any other questions in the meantime!