Taking on a student as a research assistant requires a HUGE commitment from a research professor (who is officially titled the “Principal Investigator (PI) of his or her research lab). It is also a huge risk because if anything goes wrong, it can derail the professor’s research. So, if professor does not already know you, why would they say yes to taking you on? Because you’re going to gain their trust using the methodology below.
Important: a professor will only take you on if they can see that you are truly passionate (i.e. extremely geeky passionate) about their area of research. They want to see that your “nerd passion” matches theirs.
Important: Before you proceed, read this advice article from Johns Hopkins University.
♦ = Required Task
1. Pre-Meeting Work
First: before you meet with the professor, read everything you can about that professor and his or her research. Don’t expect the professor to teach you the ropes. He or she expects you to come in with a well-research, self-learned understanding of the field and ready to work.
♦ Start with their bio on the university website and follow every link to their research papers
♦ Find any additional research papers by them on Google Scholar as well as the regular Google search engine
♦ Find research papers by others related to the same research topic(s) to understand the scope of what has been discovered by others in the field
♦ Google “Questions to ask a research principal investigator during an interview” and read lots of advice articles as they’ll contain lots of context that will help you “talk the talk” when you finally meet.
♦ Aim to become a self-learned, self-studied experts on sorts.
Tip: if you read a research paper and say to yourself, “I wish I would have done that!” That’s a great sign.
One time I sat next to a professor of biology on the metro rail. We chatted and I learned he conducted research on oysters. He explained that if he’s going to take on a high school student, he needs to know they are capable that they are capable of college level work and that they are also authentically as passionate about oysters as he is (rather than simply looking to put a research opportunity on their resume). He even farms and trades oysters in his own time.
Second: understand what skills they are looking for and do your best to develop those skills on your own.
Professors require research assistants to:
♦ Operate independently
♦ Demonstrate meticulous attention to detail
♦ Possess excellent written and oral communication skills
♦ Be highly analytical
♦ Have great team working skills
♦ Employ great time management strategies
• Have mathematical or programming skills (some labs)
Third: Prepare these documents for your first meeting.
♦ A resume. Download this fillable template if needed.
♦ Print and annotate your favorite research paper that the professor authored. Bring it to the meeting so you can reference it during your questions.
2. The Meeting
Don’t ask for a job (immediately). First, you need to assess whether assisting this professor is truly the right role for you. Your professor will deeply appreciate that approach. Therefore, start by focusing your first meeting on learning more about the research area (building upon what you’ve already self-learned) and ask questions about what it’s like to work in the professor’s lab or area of research.
Also, anticipate that your professor will immediately start your meeting by asking you, “What questions do you have for me?” Follow this approach:
♦ Attitude is the most important thing if you have no previous research experience. Be enthusiastic and have fun with the conversation. View it as two people geeking out on mutual interests.
♦ Compliment the professor on what stands out to you most about his or her past research and the questions she/he is trying to answer
• Summarize your favorite research paper/article that the professor wrote and explain why you were fascinated by it. (Pull out the annotated version of the paper when you did this so the professor can see that you carefully took notes).
♦ If you’ve done any work that’s similar to the lab you are applying to, point that out.
Inquire About the Professor’s Needs:
♦ How do your current research assistants assist you?
♦ Are research assistants expected to develop/design their own project, or do you help them get started?
♦ To what extent do research assistants operate independently?
♦ What kind of weekly time commitment do your research assistants invest? How many months long do they sign on for?
♦ Have you ever been assisted by a high school student?
♦ Is there a project I may be able to assist with? If not, how can I prepare myself to assist in the future? (Let the professor know that you would eventually like to assist in research and have an individual project. They want to see that you are willing to take ownership of your research ambitions).
♦ If the professor offered you an opportunity: ask for the next steps and the best way to communicate with the professor moving forward (i.e. phone, email, text).
♦ If the professor did not offer you an opportunity, it may be because no spots are available at the moment: ask if there may be an opening in the future for you to assist. Then, ask, “When would be be a good time for me to follow up in the future to inquire about that opportunity?”
♦ Profusely hank the professor for his/her time and insights.
Send a hand-written thank you note.