how to solicit an advisor

I had a thought-provoking conversation this morning with an enterprising undergraduate, who is looking for research experience in insects systematics. We developed two pretty exciting, tractable projects, which will almost certainly be posted here in the future. Stay tuned. In the meantime …

This individual also happens to be searching for graduate opportunities, which we discussed a bit. I was pleasantly surprised by this parting question: “What’s the best way to approach a potential future advisor?” Oh, man – I wish all students would seek this advice before contacting people about graduate opportunities, especially me.

The Web has a number of reasonable articles about approaching potential mentors – e.g., the Tao of Grad School, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Science Careers – each of which offers more details than I can. So, I won’t write an epic post about the process. (Also, one should probably initiate his/her grad program search by reading Joan Strassmann’s wonderful post about choosing a Ph.D program.) Based on personal experience, I did come up with a short list of things to consider when approaching someone you think would make a great advisor:

  1. Spell the PI’s name correctly.
  2. Be professional in your tone and communicate using correct spelling and grammar (absolutely no txt spk!)
  3. Briefly describe your interests and skills and why you think they fit with the PI’s program and institution. Pro tip: The fact that you want to live closer to your family, who live 5 miles from that institution, is not a relevant reason.
  4. Instantiate your interest and skills by acknowledging one or more of the lab’s products (a paper, a database, a website, etc.) and describing one or more of your own products or experiences (which should be relevant and substantially overlap with the prospective lab group).
  5. Ask a couple intelligent questions. Valid topics include 1) aspects of the lab’s research you want to know more about, 2) future directions of some project, 3) something about the lab atmosphere, expectations, or resources, 4) some other topic that is not easily answered by browsing the departmental website. I always feel compelled to answer emails that contain informed questions.

If you make it to the interview stage read Joan Strassmann’s other relevant piece – Impressing us on your graduate school interview – which covers most of my advice. The only thing I would add: don’t bring your parents to the interview (yes, that really happened to one of my colleagues).

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