Because undergraduate research is, by definition, faculty mentored, students will need to spend a significant period of time finding a mentor and establishing a relationship before beginning a research project and well in advance of applying for a research funding award.
What is a research mentor?
A mentor is a faculty member responsible for guiding and advising you as you conduct your research. These people could hold a wide variety of positions in the University, such as professor, advisor, principal investigator (P.I.), etc.
The student-mentor relationship is potentially one of the most important relationships in your academic career, and perhaps even in your future profession. Treat your search for a mentor like a job search. Be persistent and remain open to all opportunities!
How do I begin my search?
You can start out by coming to OUR-sponsored events like the Undergraduate Research Symposium and meet faculty and student researchers in all disciplines.
Do background research. Identify potential mentors who are working in a field of study that interests you. All WashU faculty members have brief descriptions of their research interests in their biographies on their department websites. Additionally, mentors are listed with each student abstract in publications produced by the Office of Undergraduate Research.
Remember, how you find a mentor may vary slightly depending on your field of interest.
- Typically, students in the humanities and most social sciences develop a relationship with a potential mentor during or following participation in a course.
- Students interested in psychology research should investigate the many psychology labs.
- For research in life sciences, students should start by browsing lists of potential mentors including the Department of Biology's Bio 200/500 Mentor List and/or the WashU School of Medicine Faculty List. (Note: research directed by DBBS faculty can be performed either during the school year for Bio 200/500 credit or over the summer).
How do I communicate with potential mentors?
Focus on a few faculty members (1-3 for humanities and social sciences; 3-7 for life sciences) whose work interests you and send them each an email introducing yourself and asking for an appointment to meet and discuss research opportunities. Your email should read like a cover letter and include the following:
- Who you are (your background, major, any relevant course work, strengths or experience you bring. In many cases, prior research experience is not required.)
- What you have learned about their research that most interests or excites you (a topic discussed in class, an article you have read)
- What you are looking for (Are you just starting out in the discipline? Are you planning to work on a research project over the summer? Do you anticipate writing an honors thesis?)
- Ask if you may schedule an appointment or come talk to them during office hours. It is not recommended that you ask for research opportunities directly in this message. Keep the message brief and to the point.
Depending on the faculty member and the time of year, you will get different responses. If you do not hear back from the faculty member in two weeks, you may send an email reminding them of your interest.
Prepare for the Meeting
Before the meeting:
- Read at least one article or abstract written by the potential mentor.
- Print out your current resume or curriculum vitae (CV)—ask for assistance at The Career Center, if necessary. Be sure to include on your resume any prior research experiences and techniques or procedures with which you are familiar.
- Eventually, and maybe not for this first meeting, potential mentors might ask you to provide them with a personal reference or two—not necessarily a letter of recommendation, but the name and contact information of someone who knows you well. Especially if you are a freshman or sophomore, this can be a teacher or counselor from high school or someone who knows you personally.
- Think about what dates and times you will have available to work and whether you are looking to receive academic credit (and if you anticipate the research leading to an honors thesis), a research funding award, a Federal Work-Study (FWS) position, or a volunteer position.
During the meeting:
- Keep in mind that the interview is a two-way street: you want to learn more about your potential mentor as much as s/he wants to learn more about you.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions about exactly what kind of work you would be doing and with whom (faculty member, graduate student, etc.). You want to be working with someone who is enthusiastic about having you there.
- If you are nervous about talking to a professor (and even if you aren't) here are some important things to keep in mind:
- Every professor was once an undergraduate.
- Every professor has researched a topic that s/he is passionate about and really likes to talk about.
- The following questions are just a jumping off point, but they can help if you are feeling tongue tied:
- What are your research interests?
- How did you develop your research interests and the questions you work to answer?
- When should an undergraduate start thinking about research in your discipline?
- Are there any courses that I should take or experiences/skills I should have before I start research in your discipline?
- Could I meet with you in the future to talk more about possible research opportunities?
- After your interview, send the potential mentor a thank-you note expressing both your appreciation for his/her time and, if applicable, your continued interest if a position is available.
- If you have a few options to choose from, make a list of pros and cons, taking into consideration not only your enthusiasm for the project but also your schedule, other commitments, and travel time.
- After you make your decision, contact all potential mentors you met with to thank them again and let them know your plans.