Recently, I received an email from a student, which had been forwarded by one of the administrative assistants in the Psychology department (of which I am a faculty member). I wasn’t the only one to receive the message — it was also forwarded to several other professors. The message was a familiar one, but only because more than a few students have tried to reach me this way in the past. It was a form letter of sorts. Not addressed to anyone in particular, but instead, it was intended for all professors to read.
The student was looking for an opportunity to get some research experience, and he was offering to volunteer some of his time to help out in someone’s lab. He posted his message to a “request-info” page on one of the department webpages, and it was later read by an administrative assistant. Since the message was not addressed to any individual, but instead was asking if anyone reading it could help by providing an opportunity, she simply forwarded the message to the professors on one of her mailing lists. She did all she could do for the student.
Sadly, the student is unlikely to get any positive replies. This is not because there are no opportunities for volunteer research assistants in our department. In fact, there are many. There are about 45 full-time faculty members in the Psychology department, and all of us have ongoing programs of research. Along with graduate students, and undergraduate thesis students, most of us also have one or more undergraduate student volunteers helping out at any given time. Some of us provide valuable research experience to upwards of seven or eight, or more student volunteers, on average, per year.
There are a lot of volunteer opportunities, but one must go about finding them in the proper way. Few, if any, professors will respond to an email sent to a group. There is no shortage of undergraduate students in our department who want to get involved in research, and professors provide opportunities to students who take the trouble to get to know what their research is about, and who make a request either in person, or by sending a personal email.
In other words, you need to ask individual professors about working in their labs. Send your email directly to a professor, stating your interests in volunteering some of your time to help out with his or her research. Make sure you know what they do, first.
Making a proper email request for a volunteer-position does not guarantee that you will get a positive reply — or any reply at all — so you need to be patient and persistent. Remember, however, that if you contact too many people and try to convince each one that you are especially interested in his or her research, then it will be clear to all that you are just fishing for anything you can get. This will make a bad impression, suggesting that you have poor judgment, or that you are naive, or immature, insincere, or … the list could go on, but I think you get the point. You must target your requests, and you must be sincere.
The student’s email reminded me of something that occurred last week: I was speaking to a group of about 40 students about getting undergraduate research experience, and one of them asked whether it would be okay to seek these kinds of volunteer opportunities with professors at another university (Here in Montreal, there are four universities to choose from). I assured her that this is, in fact, a good idea, and that I have known many students who have done exactly that. Likewise, many students from other universities have spent time in my lab as a volunteer assistant, and the same is true for most of my colleagues who have been around for a while.
A young man then raised his hand, and told us that things are, in fact, different at McGill. He told us that ‘they’ only offer volunteer research opportunities to McGill students. He said he had been told so when he tried to contact people there. I suggested that he should ignore the person who told him that, as it is not likely to be part of any policy. I did not ask him whom he contacted, or how, and now I’m wondering if he contacted the right people at McGill.
If it is the case (and I don’t know if it is) that he called or emailed a secretary in the Psychology Department to ask about volunteer positions, then it is not surprising that he was told that being an outside student might be a problem. Secretaries and other administrative staff members are not directly involved in research activities, or in making decisions about who a professor will invite onto his or her research team. It might even make sense to a person in that position to suspect that students “from within” are preferred by professors who put students to work in their labs. Some professors might even think that way, but most do not. And it’s all up to the professors to decide whether you can work in their laboratories. Keep in mind that if you are accepted into a research lab, that is only the first step in making a good impression. Some students end up making the least of this opportunity and sabotage their hopes for grad school. Don’t end up in this position!
The message is the same: If you go outside of your own school to look for a volunteer research position, be sure to directly contact the individual researchers with whom you wish to work. There are actually some advantages to getting at least some volunteer research experience at a different institution than your own university. But, that topic is a long one, and better to leave for another time.
(In case anyone is wondering, I did respond to the student’s message. I did not offer him a volunteer position in my laboratory, but I did tell him about the importance of contacting professors directly, after first finding out what their research is about).
[ By the way, if graduate school is in your plans, be sure to check out the archives for this blog, as well as the most recent posts. I can give you all the best information and advice about what it takes to get into the graduate program that’s right for you.
There are many other sites out there, but they all provide the same basic and generic information and advice about applying to graduate school, and therefore, none of them offer anything that is uniquely helpful. In fact, following too closely the advice of other so-called grad-school experts can be harmful to your chances of getting in. If you want to see what I mean by that, and learn about the biggest myth there is about getting into graduate school in any of the sciences or social sciences, then please check out this blog post from August, 2012 — What if the Guru is Wrong About That? ]