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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Student Tip: How to Approach a Researcher/Professor for a Job

This post presents a few ideas for students wanting to understand a professor's or researcher's professional work area. This is useful when you apply for a research job or internship.

Approaching a researcher or professor for a job or internship requires that you have an idea about her work beforehand. This helps in preparing your pitch and improves your chances of bubbling up to the top of the pile of student resumes she has received. Nothing impresses more than a student who can have a brief intelligent conversation about the professor's research field.

Understand that applying for a research job is not the same as applying for a university admission. Why? Because your interest in the research job should be genuine and specific to the work being offered by the professor or researcher. Your desire to get a university degree is also genuine, but the university was convinced about genuineness for every student who applied because a non-serious student would stand to lose the most anyway - her gpa, tuition fee, and time.

On the other hand, a wrong student hire can significantly degrade the output of a research project and harm the researcher's career prospects. Moreover, arbitrarily removing an under-performing student worker is politically unfavorable for a researcher or professor and is rarely an option. Therefore professors and researchers tread with extreme caution before hiring and are experts at sniffing out the good genuine students from the lackluster ones.

But lets put on the student's hat here. The student is obviously not an expert in the researchers field, the desire to do research partly stems from the financial aspect of the research job (tuition waiver/stipend/internship experience), she must cast a wide net, spanning dozens of professors/researchers, in order to net a "catch", and sometimes she hasn't ever met the researcher or professor to whom she is applying for a job. Its hard enough trying to understand one professor's work, but what with dozens?

Unlike university applications,  which tend to be almost identical across universities, each professor or researcher requires a unique effort on part of the student. Moreover, In fact, this arduous task is a natural selection process that separates casual student job hunters from the serious ones.Here are a few things to bear in mind when fishing for research jobs/internships

Approach Medium - Cold emailing is brave but can be construed as spam in the eyes of the researchers/professors. Not because they are snobbish and proud, but because they receive a barrage of the i-want-a-job emails every day. A classic tragedy of the commons - email is free to replicate and send for students. But it is expensive (in time) to read and act on the recipients part. If you can afford it, or if you are fortunate to be in the vicinity of where you want to work, then please arrange a face-to-face meeting via the appropriate channel (e.g. calling the secretary, asking your dad's uncle, who happens to be an academic, to introduce you, etc.).

However, you may not have the resources to personally meet potential employers, so email is by far the only plausible medium. Make sure your email is not spam. Heres how
  • Find out if there is a HR channel to send your application instead of directly emailing researchers/professors your resume and work samples. And yes, this is information you dig out through the organization's website, not by asking the professor or researcher!
  • Most i-want-a-job emails come roughly 4-6 months before the start of the job (e.g. most summer internship applications arrive between the preceding October and January) . Why should that be? How about some extra effort, much in advance, to start reading and learning your prospective employers' work and start a genuine conversation thread regarding their work. If you have good ideas then  most researchers/professors would be happy to hire you, and assign your time to you so that you can pursue your idea.
Another great idea is to pull interest toward you instead of fishing for jobs. How? Start your own blog, post interesting things you've read or you've worked with - that homework assignment when you programmed that hash table or a sideshow of your herbarium. Or how about posting a review of a research paper you read and then asking for the author's take on your review? I once had a student who send me  a few data inputs for which a program I posted on my website didn't work. No offense taken. And yes I badly wanted to hire him (but he wasn't available - the good ones are hard to get!).

Show you are passionate about what you do and that you are willing to go the extra mile and contribute to others' benefit. Think, reflect, opine - its creative minds they are after.

More on this later...


  1. This are really interesting points to approach a professor to know their working area.From this post It will surely going to help many students to get ideas of working area of professors.

    super professor

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