Finding a Research Mentor
Identifying an undergraduate research mentor can be a bit intimidating. In many ways, it is similar to a job interview, or to selecting a graduate research mentor. The suggestions below should help you arrange a supervised research experience beginning at any time. If you are applying to the SURE program, we strongly encourage that you begin this process ASAP, as your mentor-approved research proposal needs to be submitted between November and February.
If you are seeking a faculty mentor for doing research for credit, or need additional information on finding a senior thesis advisor, contact your department's undergraduate research coordinator:
Advice to students writing proposals or searching for research mentors
1. Research the possibilities: What areas of research interest you? It is likely that you have a few topics that truly catch your attention. Use the local media, library, and the web to seek additional information. Talk to your academic advisor and to your instructors for suggestions. It is very likely that one or more researchers in the Atlanta area are currently working on topics that you enjoy. Friends and classmates may also be able to suggest faculty members that have a reputation for being good research mentors. If you have work-study funds, you can try to find work at a laboratory of interest (this can be particularly useful to 1st year students, who often have trouble finding research mentors due to their somewhat limited academic background).
2. Narrow down your search: Once you have some likely mentors in mind, you will need to contact them to determine whether they are available for mentoring undergraduate researchers. Faculty are usually limited in time and resources, and you want to determine availability as soon as possible. Call or e-mail the researcher, and explain that you are interested in applying to our program. Volunteer to forward program materials to them (don't assume they know about the SURE program), and set up an appointment to discuss the possibility of a collaboration. Do not be discouraged if you receive no reply: it is possible this researcher is out of town or busy with a grant deadline. Try someone else in your list. There is nothing wrong with approaching more than one potential mentor simultaneously. Your goal is to find a great mentor and research environment, and shopping around IS allowed. If you end up with more than one offer, decide which one you will explore, and decline the other offer with many thanks. This way, the researcher that you turn down will be able to recruit other students, and the phrase "flaky student that came by, acted all excited, then disappeared..." won't be associated with your person.
3. Prepare for the interview: The kindness of their heart aside, why should this busy stranger agree to mentor your research? The answer is simple: you would be an asset to their lab. As an undergraduate, you are not expected to be a fully trained expert; however, you should have a general idea (the more detailed, the better) of what this researcher's work entails. Prepare for the interview. Bring a list of questions to ask, such as what kinds of projects might be available for you to work on, and whether this faculty has mentored other undergraduates. Discuss your interest in continuing this collaboration during the academic year. Take notes. Discuss how this experience is important to your future career plans. If possible, indicate a project in which you would like to be involved (whether that is a project already in progress, or a project you devised your own). Discuss compensation: are you looking for a paid position, a work-study position, do you wish to volunteer, or are you interested in doing research for credit? Regarding funding, ask whether the faculty's grants may support undergraduate research. [NSF grants allow for supplements for all students, and NIH grants allow for supplements to support minorities. If your chosen researcher is unaware of these possibilities, refer them to the SURE web page, under Information for Mentors]. Bring a transcript of your coursework, should you need to discuss your academic background. You want to appear informed, prepared, and eager to learn and work.
4. Follow up on the interview: Make time to call or send a note thanking the researcher for meeting with you. A short e-mail will do. If the researcher is unable to offer you his/her support, do not be discouraged. Think of this interview as good practice for the next one. If the interview leads to an offer to collaborate, set up a time to further discuss the project, and ask for materials or references to help you prepare.
5. Details, details: Find out as much as you can about the project and the research environment before you accept to participate. Discuss issues such as how many hours/week can you devote to the project (and is this in agreement with your research mentor's expectations)? Who will supervise you (and are you comfortable with this arrangement)? How often will you meet with your faculty advisor (or will you mostly interact with another laboratory member; is the arrangement acceptable to you)? How will your performance be evaluated? What skills will your project require and if you need training, when can this training begin? Discuss whether you need training in lab safety, use of radioisotopes, animal handling, or whether you need any tests/vaccinations. What is the laboratory protocol for notebook keeping? Will you be working in a project that might lead to a publication?
The above questions are offered as a starting point. In our experience, most misunderstandings between students and mentors stem from a lack of clear expectations on these issues.
See Emory's Guidelines for the Responsible Conduct of Scholarship and Research for a primer on the rights and responsibilities of individuals involved in academic research. We strongly encourage all students interested in research to explore their sponsoring institution's Guidelines.
6. Get to work!: For students that will use the SURE program to begin a research collaboration, it is important to invest in the project before the program actually begins. Only then will your have enough time to prepare a competitive proposal. Remember: applications are due in mid-February. Locating a faculty mentor and perfecting your proposal will take time, and you will be busy with your Fall and Spring coursework and winter break; faculty may be attending meetings.