3. Reach out.
You’ve got a couple avenues depending on whether you’re taking the co-op/research program approach or a direct approach. Research programs and co-op programs often have strict application guidelines and deadlines, so this approach is easy: follow the instructions. If you want to learn more or you’re not sure about what they are looking for, reach out to the coordinators – they are often more than happy to entertain your questions.
The direct approach is more challenging.
Establish Common Ground
Establishing common ground is a critical way to reach out to someone professionally. Most researchers and people in industry won’t talk to you if you’re a random connection. You need to have some basis of connecting with them so that your contact doesn’t seem contrived.
First, look to see if you know anyone who has worked in the researcher’s lab. If so, ask them to make an introduction. It’s always easier to make a professional connection when you have an “in”.
Second, if you don’t know anyone who has worked in the lab before, see if you have had any instructors in the same department (TA’s or professors). If nothing else, you can reference the fact that you took a class with someone the researcher knows.
Third, if you don’t have any connections whatsoever, look for common interests or themes. Are you an avid rock climber and the researcher has their department photo of them rock climbing? Bingo.
Get in touch
If you have someone to make an introduction, great. Wait for the introduction to be made, and then reply to the researcher directly with your introduction. If not, then craft a concise but complete email that will function as your cover letter. Request an informational interview or ask about opportunities in the lab. Do not do both at the same time. Send your resume only if you are asking for opportunities. Don’t send your resume if you’re requesting an informational interview, but bring it with you when you meet.
Email, don’t call. At least for first contact. If you really want to work with them and they don’t respond, you can call.
Your email needs to contain the following components:
- Brief intro about yourself (e.g. “I’m a Biology major here at [your school] interested in [your interests that overlap with the researcher’s”].
- Reference to the common ground (e.g. “I learned about your research from my friend Joe Smith who worked with you last summer”)
- Call to action (e.g. “I would love to meet with you and learn more about your research in person. Please let me know if you are available in the next several weeks to talk more.”)
- Thank them for their time.
Your email should lack the following (among other things):
- An immature email address. If your email is firstname.lastname@example.org, it’s time to get a grown-up email address.
- Seeming desperate. If you don’t know how to not sound desperate, have a friend read your email.
- Any detailed review of their research papers or their work. The researcher cares that you care, but not enough to read over an essay about their own work. That’s particularly true since they know their work far better than you do, and the more you talk, the more you increase your chances that you will butcher it.
- Random, unrelated stories of any kind. Cool, you both like rock climbing. You can talk all you want about it in person; it shouldn’t get anything more than a mention in your email.
- Overly verbose or formal language. Be a real person. People know when you’re putting on a show.
- More than 150 words. Researchers are busy people and won’t read that much text even if they’re marginally interested.
Dress cleanly but not too formally. Researchers usually dress casually. If you overdress, it says “I don’t understand you,” if you underdress, it says “I don’t respect you.” Strike the balance.
And that’s it! Ask questions, be interesting, see if it’s a good fit. Ask if they have any opportunities for you to get involved. Go with the flow of the conversation and you’ll be great!