How do you email a professor asking to help with their research?

Hi! I am a rising high school junior interested in cancer cell research and immunology.

I am currently planning on doing a computer science internship with a medicine aspect in spring 2021. However, I am also looking to conduct research more focused on cancer next summer.

I am planning to apply to a few summer research programs however I have heard that I could also try emailing professors at local colleges/universities asking to help them with their research. I have never done this before therefore I was wondering if anyone has any advice on how to email professors? How many professors should I email? When should I start sending emails? What to include in an email? How long should I wait for a response?

Thank you so much in advance!

  1. first do your research. Read the webpages of professors at nearby colleges so you can develop a list of researchers who are working in your area of interest. Don’t shotgun; try to develop a targeted list of people working in an area that you’re interested in.

  2. talk to your teachers and your computer science mentor to see who is willing to be a reference for you.

  3. write up your CV, list relevant coursework (with grades if they’re good), computer skills, data analysis skills, specific laboratory skills or animal care skills (if relevant to the lab you’re applying to) you’ve mastered. Be specific. (“Have written 4 statistical analysis scripts in R for datasets > 1000 samples” “Have complete a DNA sequencing project in AP Bio using the ABC technique.” “Have 5 years experience caring for pet rabbits.” ) Include a statement of your interests and goals. Include the names & contact info for your recommenders. (If you’re not sure to how to write up a CV, google for examples.) The more specific you can be about your skills and experiences, the stronger your CV will be.

If you have work experience or have a significant regular volunteer gig, be sure to include that on your CV even if it’s not relevant to lab job you want. Both are evidence of your work ethic and reliability. Be sure to include your supervisor from these activities on your list recommenders.

  1. Write a personalized/targeted cover letter for each researcher on your list. Briefly introducing yourself and explaining why you’re interested in working in Dr. XYZ’s lab and how you could contribute to the work being done. Attach your resumé.

That depends on how many nearby research labs are working on projects where your skills and interests coincide with what the lab does. It might be 1 or 2; it might a dozen. Please don’t waste everyone’s time by contacting every professor in a given department. It’s waste of your time and theirs. Also make sure you only contact one person per lab. Many research labs will have a hierarchy of people working there–a Principal Investigator (PI), collaborating researchers (other professors), post-docs, grad students, undergrad students. Possibly a paid, full time lab manager, possibly several full time paid lab assistants. Address your inquiry letter to the PI.

Be aware than many college labs have policies prohibiting non-students from volunteering in certain research labs due to risk and liability issues.

Also be aware that all lab newbies go through a trial period where they are assigned the most menial tasks in the lab. Washing lab glassware, mixing solutions, cleaning animal cages, doing inventory. Working in research lab is far from glamorous. A lot of the work is tedious.

Only once you’re close to completing your CS internship so you can include that/ those skills on your CV. Probably not earlier than mid-late April 2021 for summer 2021. Professors really aren’t thinking much about summer volunteers before then.

You are NOT going to get any response from most of the cold emails you send out. Not even a “we don’t consider HS students” or “we have no openings.” Don’t be surprised by that. If you’re going to get a response, it will usually be within a week, two weeks at the outside. If you haven’t heard anything after 2 weeks, assume you’re not going to get a response.

@WayOutWestMom thank you so much for all of this information, it was extremely helpful.