Network Your Way into Research Opportunities

Emailing researchers in your area of interest can be a great way to find a summer opportunity, land a lab position after graduation, or get ahead in your graduate school applications. This kind of outreach is an often-overlooked path forward in scientific careers.

As you learn about cool research, take note of the names you see coming up a lot in your reading. Who’s doing exciting work? Check author affiliations on the papers you read for class to see what universities have interesting projects happening. (Pro tip for author lists: the last person listed is often the “senior author,” or the director of the lab. Start by looking up that person. Journal articles also tend to designate a “corresponding author” and provide their email address.)

So how do you structure this email? Keep it short, direct, and polite:

  1. Be formal: “Dear Dr. Barks:”
  2. Briefly introduce yourself: “I am a third-year student at Grinnell College majoring in biological chemistry with a concentration in neuroscience.”
  3. Make a connection: “Reading your recent paper on the role of neuropeptide receptors in schizophrenia was a highlight of my neuroscience seminar course this year. I’m very interested in your work in this area.”
  4. Give the context for your email:
    • “I intend to apply for graduate programs in molecular neuroscience next year.”
    • “I hope to get experience in neuroscience research this summer.”
    • “I’m looking for a research position following my graduation in May.”
  5. Say a bit more about your relevant background with a sentence or two about your coursework or previous research experience, and include your résumé or CV.
  6. Ask a specific question:
    • “Do you plan on taking new graduate students in your research group next year? Based on my interests and experience, do you think I would be a good fit for your program?”
    • “Are there any opportunities to get involved in research in your lab this summer?”
    • “Do you have any open positions currently?”
  7. Close politely: “Thank you very much for your time. I hope to hear from you soon.”

CLS advisers are always happy to review an outreach email before you send it.

If you are applying to graduate school, establishing contact with potential mentors in your programs of interest can help you tailor your application essays. (Alternatively, if you find out that someone is not taking new students, this outreach can save you an application.) If you’re seeking summer research, you might find a lab that doesn’t have a formal summer program but can create a position for you. This is especially useful for international students, as many summer research programs in the United States can only accept US citizens/permanent residents. And for seniors looking for a research job, this kind of outreach email is a great way to find a position that might not even be advertised.

By Sarah Barks
Sarah Barks Senior Director, STEM Career Communities & Analytics