October 9, 2022

How to get into research, as an undergraduate.

I've received many many dozens of emails from undergraduates looking for research, during my time as a PhD student; here's the post I wish all of them read.

Looking for research? I've been on both sides of the table — both looking for and providing research opportunities. It's frustrating as an undergraduate, but funnily enough, it's tough to recruit as a PhD student too. So, I'm writing to you research-bound undergraduates: There are researchers out there that need your help and are having a hard time connecting with you. To stand out, focus on communicating your talents effectively, because this short ~150-word pitch — the cold email itself — is the biggest weakness I see.

Note: If you're reading this post a bit farther in advance, you may be looking for longer-term advice for readiness. In which case, check out courses and other ways to prepare yourself for research in "How to prepare for research, without prior experience".

🔗99% of opportunities aren't formal applications.

This post is tailored for "ad-hoc" research collaborations, where the path to collaboration is nebulous. This forms the bulk of research opportunities. However, for sake of completeness, I'll mention the few examples of more structured research programs, where it's obvious how to apply and get involved:

That's it for the more structured programs; for what it's worth, some these applications are low ROI — many applicants, few positions, and possibly out-of-date project descriptions. I'm going to take the rest of this post to instead focus on the 99% of opportunities that exist outside of formal applications.

🔗Send PhD students short emails.

There are 3 very quick, short tips I can offer that most undergraduates don't follow:

Provided you're short on time and sending cold emails now, this email is the only part of the process you control, so make it count. There are three possible states your reader is in:

  1. Your reader thinks they don't want to work with an undergraduate collaborator. Most likely, they've never worked with an undergraduate collaborator before.

  2. Your reader wants to work with an undergraduate collaborator but doesn't know how to. Afraid to take on mentees, when they themselves don't know what's going on.

  3. Your reader wants to work with an undergraduate collaborator but doesn't know how to "filter" good candidates. Heck, they don't even know what "good" candidate means.

In short, you need to convince a reader who a) doesn't know they need undergraduate collaborators, b) doesn't know what they're looking for, and c) doesn't know how to collaborate with you. Your email has to address these 3 items in some way, and here are the basic 3 points you need to demonstrate. Whether or not the PhD student knows it, this is what they need:

  1. Readiness — Show you're technically prepared for research, with the right coursework and maybe even experience beyond coursework. Some academics care about grades, but I daresay more important than grades, is your ability to meaningfully hold a conversation about the topic.

  2. Motivation — Show you're broadly interested in the same problems. If you have an extra reason to be motivated, include it. For example, if you want to apply to PhD programs. No need for larger-than-life missions or a personal history that has predestined you for this moment. Just interest in the field is good.

  3. Work Ethic — Show you're hard-working and have the time to commit. For the latter, "reduced" unit count and lack of other time-consuming extracurriculars works. I put "reduced" in quotes because it's all relative. If you normally take 20 units and you're taking 10 now, great. If you normally take 10 units and are now taking 5, even better.

Note: Remember some professors centralize undergraduate recruiting for their graduate students. As mentioned before, they'll have requirements on their website for collaboration. Make sure to check professor and PhD student websites before reaching out.

🔗Include readiness, motivation, and work ethic in your email.

Your goal is to communicate how invaluable of a research asset you'll be, in as few words as possible. Please, no essays! It's fairly difficult to communicate your value over an email but the below is the bare minimum. For each section, you can find example blurbs. I also included a version that reflects my junior-year experience:

Hello [researcher],

I'm a 3rd-year undergraduate majoring in Computer Science and am interested in computer vision, specifically in your neural architecture search work. Do you have research opportunities for undergraduates?

Interest (2-3 sentences)

I've previously worked with Vlad Feinberg from Prof. Gonzalez's lab on expanded-length rollouts for deep reinforcement learning, which we submitted to NeurIPS 2016 (second author). I ran ablation studies, proofread proofs, and helped frame the story. For preparation, I took courses in machine learning, convex optimization, and probability theory; and interned at a startup for coding experience.

Readiness (2-3 sentences)

I hope to apply to PhD programs in fall 2017, just a year from now. Knowing that, I've put aside other commitments to dedicate myself to research. I've reduced courseload from 20 to 10 units, dropped all extracurriculars, and can dedicate 20+ hours per week, working in-person for 3+ days each week.

Motivation (2-3 sentences)

I've attached my resume and am happy to provide additional information. If helpful, I'm available anytime this or next week after 3p and if you let me know a preferred time, I can setup the gcal and Zoom.

Thanks,

Alvin

Make it easy. In short, should require as little work as possible for them to say yes. That's it! Here's the full draft, for easy copy-and-paste.

Hello ,

I'm a 3rd-year undergraduate majoring in Computer Science and am interested in computer vision, specifically in your neural architecture search work. Do you have research opportunities for undergraduates?

I've previously worked with Vlad Feinberg from Prof. Gonzalez's lab on expanded-length rollouts for deep reinforcement learning, which we submitted to NeurIPS 2016 (second author). I ran ablation studies, proofread proofs, and helped frame the story. For preparation, I took courses in machine learning, convex optimization, and probability theory; and interned at a startup for coding experience.

I hope to apply to PhD programs in fall 2017, just a year from now. Knowing that, I've put aside other commitments to dedicate myself to research. I've reduced courseload from 20 to 10 units, dropped all extracurriculars, and can dedicate 20+ hours per week, working in-person for 3+ days each week.

I've attached my resume and am happy to provide additional information. If helpful, I'm available anytime this or next week after 3p and if you let me know a preferred time, I can setup the gcal and Zoom.

Thanks,

Alvin

🔗Grow into a 5-star researcher.

Got a positive response from your email? Great. Got a negative response? That's okay too! Or, called in for an interview? Ran into a PhD student you want to work with? No matter which of these scenarios it is, your next step is the exact same: Learn how to become an invaluable research asset. If you've been accepted, this is of course how you'll maximize your collaboration. If you've been rejected or are prepping for an interview, this is still the next best thing to do: The best way to get a research opportunity is to become a great researcher yourself. For a more accessible set of immediate goals, see how to succeed as a research mentee.