Tips for Finding a Research Group and Project

Graduate students are encouraged to find a research advisor and research project as soon as possible.  Faculty are aware that you will be primarily taking courses during your first 3 semesters; we nonetheless encourage you to meet individually with faculty, attend group meetings,  and arrange to work with a research group over the summer and/or during breaks.

Q: How do I contact a faculty member?

Generally, the best method is via email.  Send an email requesting a meeting to discuss research.  Faculty are always happy to discuss research! If we don't respond in a day or two, send a follow-up email.

Q: How many faculty members should I contact?

As many as you like!  Faculty expect that you will be shopping around for an advisor, and/or just getting to know the faculty and what they do. Finding the right "fit" in a research advisor is important!  You want to find research that is sufficiently exciting to you that it will sustain your interest for at least the next few years.  You also want to find an advisor and mentor from whom you can learn and grow as a researcher. 

Q: Am I expected to read a faculty member's papers before scheduling a meeting?

In most cases, no.  But when you send your email requesting a meeting, you can ask if there is anything you should look at beforehand.

Q: When should I contact a faculty member about research?

As soon as possible. Your first semester, or even before. If you are working as a 20 hr/week teaching assistant and taking core courses, faculty don't generally expect you to also be a productive member of their group. But if you are interested in working with a particular faculty member, you should ask if you can attend group meetings and make a point of getting to know the other students and/or postdocs in the group right away. Faculty need to plan ahead, so if you know you are interested, you should express that interest as soon as possible.

Q: What should I ask about when I meet with a faculty member?

Ask about their research, what projects they are working on and what new directions their research might take.  Remember, you are not expected to know anything in your first meetings with a potential research advisor, but you are expected to ask questions when you don't follow something. One of the most important markers of a successful student is the ability to ask questions and get the information you need.  Don't be shy to ask!  Again, faculty do not expect you to understand the jargon or physics of their subfield!

If the research is interesting to you, ask who else in the department does similar work and/or who else you should speak with about their work.

If their the research is very interesting to you, ask about a summer position, or if you can attend group meetings, or if you can do an independent study with them on the specific topic that interests you.

If you think you'd like to join their research effort, ask about the longer-term prospects for a position in the group.  Ask, specifically, what would it take to get a position in the group?  Some faculty may want you to take an independent study course, or spend a trial semester or summer working in the group, before committing to supporting you in the long term. Every faculty has different expectations, so be sure to ask.

Who else works in their group? Then follow up by meeting with other group members and asking about their research and experience in (and getting into) the group.

What do they expect from their students (in terms of output, hours, reports, courses students should take, techniques you'll be learning, etc)? 

Where are their past students currently working?

These are just some ideas to get you started - feel free to ask or follow up on whatever interests you.

Q: What will the faculty member be looking for when we meet?

At a first meeting, faculty will be looking to get to know you.  You are more likely to make an impression if you ask questions and are curious about their research.  Faculty are not, generally, looking for any specific knowledge or expertise, nor do they expect you to know much if anything about their work.

Q: How do I actually get into a research group?

This is a process that can take a semester or more.  Every faculty member has different expectations, and you should be sure to ask. Don't expect an immediate commitment from the faculty member; we also don't expect an immediate commitment from you. Here are some ways that students get into different research groups.

  • Some of us expect students to spend a trial semester or summer working in the lab or group and contributing in a positive way. We expect that you will be spending most of your time "learning the ropes" and will be looking (in large part) for your engagement, motivation, ability to learn. If you are being paid as an Research Assistant, we will also be looking for specific contributions to the group's work. You should also consider this a time to decide if this is the group for you.
  • Some of us would like to work with you in an independent study course. In this case, faculty may use the independent study course to decide if they will take you on as a student, and you should also use the course to decide if this is the advisor and project for you.  (With approval of the Graduate Program Director, these courses can also count towards your research course requirement). You can suggest the topic of the independent study, or you can ask the faculty member to suggest a topic.
  • Some of us may ask you to complete a reading/writing/reporting assignment, or a small research project. Remember that these are not homework assignments!  In this case, faculty might be looking for your ability to get the information you need, to work efficiently (either on your own or with others), and to proactively find necessary resources. Of course, this also gives you the opportunity to decide if this group or project is for you.

Q: Who else can I ask about how to get into a research group?

Lots of help is available.  In addition to the specific faculty member you'd like to work with, consider speaking with:

  • other graduate students or postdocs, particularly those in the group(s) you'd like to join;
  • your peer-mentor;
  • your academic advisor;
  • the Graduate Program Director
  • other faculty members.

Q: Is there anything I need to do to make finding an advisor "official"?

Yes.  To satisfy this milestone, you need to inform the Graduate Program Director (or Graduate Program Office) using the Research Advisor Confirmation form.  Then you need to go celebrate!