Most faculty enjoy having undergraduates involved in their research. Don’t be afraid to approach them!
Having said that, the key to finding the right mentor is to be thoughtful. Do not send 50 identical messages to every faculty member in your field of interest. Take the time to identify those individuals who are doing work that genuinely interests you. The process of thinking through what really fascinates you and finding a mentor is valuable in its own right—it is not simply a means to an end.
Emails to Faculty Members
- Do your research! Read their website, find out about recent publications, and have a good understanding of what their work entails.
- Think about why do you want to do research—and why you want to work with this particular faculty member. Be sure you can articulate the answers to these questions.
- Be professional, formal and respectful. Address the faculty member as Dear. Prof X or Dr. Y.
- Briefly outline your interests and the topics you would like to explore. These should fall under the general umbrella of work that the faculty member is doing.
- Remember that faculty members are generally happy to teach you the technical skills required to be involved in their work. What they don’t want to spend time on is worrying about whether you’re reliable, committed, can show up on time or are going to take this responsibility seriously. Show them that you will!
- Don’t be afraid to express your enthusiasm about their work!
Meeting with Faculty Members
- Review what made you interested in this topic (a topic discussed in class, an article you read, etc.).
- Look over the faculty member’s curriculum vitae and publications--read at least one article or abstract they have written.
- Be confident, excited and relaxed—and look presentable.
- Remember that the interview is the time for you to learn more about your potential mentor—not only for them to learn more about you.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions! These are just suggestions, but can help if you are feeling nervous:
- How did you develop your research interest?
- Are there courses I should be thinking about taking to complement the work I might be doing in your group?
- What kind of work will I be doing and with whom (faculty member, graduate student, etc.)?
- How much time each week do you think will be required for me to make a positive contribution to this work?
- I understand that I might need to start “at the bottom,” but if I show initiative and drive, what are the opportunities for me to become more independent?
- Can I meet with you in the future to talk more about possible research opportunities?
- Don’t get discouraged. If one faculty member does not have a position available, they might be able to recommend another project or faculty member for you.
- After your interview, send a thank-you note expressing both your appreciation for their time and your continued interest should there be an available position.
- If you have options, consider not only your enthusiasm for the research itself but your feeling about the intangibles of the mentor and his/her group. You want to enjoy your time doing research—and the people around you are a big factor!
- After you make your decision, contact all potential mentors with whom you met. Thank them again and let them know your plans.
Find a Faculty Mentor in the Research Directory!
The Research Directory is one way to find faculty actively looking for undergraduate research help. Don't be discouraged if the professor you're interested in working with is not listed--you can always reach directly out to them!
If you do not find an opportunity that matches your interests on CURF’s Research Directory, do not despair.
You can browse faculty research interests in each school:
- Departmental pages in The College of Arts and Sciences allow you to conduct a focused search by field. Departments often list faculty on pages entitled “Faculty and Research” or “People.” The College also maintains an alphabetical list of all College faculty.
- The School of Engineering and Applied Science maintains a Faculty Expertise Directory where you can search for faculty by name, department, or area of research expertise.
- The School of Nursing maintains a list of Research Centers, as well as a listing of faculty research interests.
- Wharton maintains a list of faculty alphabetically or by department, as well as a list of Wharton Centers and Initiatives where faculty researchers are doing cutting-edge work and may employ students.
The Student Employment Office may also yield research opportunities through the Work-Study job listings page. Student research can be paid through the Federal Work-Study program if the student has a Work-Study grant. Students who do not have grants will still be able to find faculty researchers who are looking for students to hire, although not all will be able to fund non-work-study students. Searching under “category” = “research” yields the best results.
- Connect with a Research Peer Advisor who can help you identify potential mentors
- If you’ve already identified a research topic, your Research Mentor might be a faculty member with whom you’ve taken a class in which you excelled. In this case, contact the instructor indicating that you’re interested in learning more about the topic, and follow up by visiting the instructor during office hours or scheduling an appointment.
- If you’re just starting out, visiting your professors during office hours is a great way to get to know faculty and their research interests. Reading online faculty biographies and asking about their current research can help you learn about the kinds of research Penn professors are doing. Demonstrate your serious interest by reading an article they have published.
- Ask your College House Faculty Master, Faculty Fellows, or House Deans about their research interests, and share your interests with them. Not only will you make a connection with a Penn faculty member, they may also be able to connect you with a faculty member with expertise in your area.
- If you’re a freshman or sophomore, the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program (PURM) provides opportunities for Penn students to work closely with a faculty mentor on an ongoing research project during the summer.
- Enroll in a course with a research focus. Departmental advisors can be most helpful in identifying such courses.
- Ask your current and former Teaching Assistants. Graduate students can’t be your formal Faculty Mentor, but they can help direct you to faculty who share your interests.
- Ask fellow undergraduates, especially if they’ve had successful research experiences. Many Penn departments and programs have Undergraduate Advisory Boards and Student Associations consisting of students eager to share their experiences. Use and expand your network whenever you can.
- Prepare a resume according to the conventions of your undergraduate school posted on the Career Services website and bring it to your appointment with your potential faculty mentor. If your research interest is in the faculty member’s area of expertise, they may agree to work with you. If not, they may refer you to a colleague. Or they may recommend other courses for you to take before beginning your project in order to continue to build your research capacity. Listen to your faculty member’s advice, and carefully consider an expert’s view on what you’ll need to do to successfully conduct your research.
- Schedule a consultation meeting with a Van Pelt library subject specialist in your area, who can be extremely helpful in narrowing and defining a research project/topic. Your project will still require a mentor who is on the faculty, but library subject specialists can help you shape your project as you prepare to approach a potential faculty mentor.