Some Advice for Inexperienced Students Beginning Research

There are several “soft” skills that those of us who have been in academia for several years often take for granted. These skills are usually not formally taught to students, but they are vital to success. In particular, students who are from disadvantaged backgrounds may not have had a chance to pick up on these skills and may be judged negatively as a consequence.

Use email effectively
Does anyone really need to learn how to write an email when doing so is something we all do, all of the time? Yes! There are many guides devoted to the topic, including helpful ones that deal specifically with sending emails to a professor or potential advisor.  More generally, a few years ago Adam Grant wrote a great article about getting important people to email you back. His advice applies to emails sent to most to people: be memorable, be specific, don’t ask for something you can easily do on your own, try to highlight connections with the recipient, be brief (but not terse), and be grateful. Some of the faux pas I have encountered most often include:

  • Sending an empty subject line. Worst-case scenario: the email goes to the Spam folder or recipient automatically deletes. Alternative scenario: recipient wonders why you didn’t have the decency to send a proper email.
  • Sending the email from a not-so-professional email address. It is ok if you want to use a non-academic email account as long as the name sounds professional. But don’t use an account with a cool or cute name. I won’t list unfortunate addresses I have seen, but they go along the lines of or
  • Not keeping salutations and signatures relevant and professional. When you send work emails, do not try to sell your religious or political views, regardless of how important they are to you. Leave out signature quotes/statements. Worst-case scenario: you offend or annoy someone.
  • Being too casual. Be as polite and formal as possible until you are absolutely sure that your recipient doesn’t mind casual emails from you. Being polite never hurt anyone.

Communicate with your mentor
You have begun a research experience in a lab, and now it is vital that you communicate effectively with your mentor(s). Ideally, your mentor would tell you how and when communication will happen, or you would naturally do what he/she is expecting but not telling you. Many mentors do not give detailed communication plans, and when they do they often change them because they are so busy. Do not necessarily take delays in response or cancelled meetings as an indication that your mentor is not interested in you. Your mentor does want to know what you have been up to, and taking some initiative to communicate will reflect positively on you. Keep your mentor posted on what you have accomplished via email and during meetings at least once per week, more often if you are just starting, and/or have time sensitive questions. If you sit back and wait for someone to reach out to you, you may miss out on a better experience, or worse, your mentor may assume that you lack initiative and don’t care about the project. Don’t get too carried away though, you don’t want to demand so much time from a mentor that they feel annoyed. Having a list of things to discuss prior to a meeting will help you focus if your mentor does not guide the conversation or cover all that would be helpful to you. If you are in a big lab, always start a meeting by refreshing your mentor’s memory about what you are currently working on. If he/she is juggling several projects and courses, then easing into your topic with a 2-3 minute catch-up is likely welcome. A few other specifics:

  • Don’t be afraid to bring up the topic of communication if your advisor doesn’t do it. Simply ask, “How often would you like me to meet with you?”, “Can I stop by your office at any time, or do you prefer that I set up meetings?”, “Do you prefer that I stop by, call, or send emails with questions?”, “How would you like to keep posted on my progress?”, etc.
  • Always err on the side of being the last one to communicate during an email exchange and reply as quickly as you can. That is, if your mentor sends you a note stating “Please complete steps 1-5 of project X,” then you should send a reply stating that you will do so and not assume that your mentor knows you have started working on steps 1-5 and will get back to them with results in a week. You are not bothering people by acknowledging receipt of messages.
  • Ask for feedback. It is tough to ask others about their opinion of you, but you should do it. Many mentors feel uncomfortable giving unsolicited feedback, but it is in your best interest to find out how things are going early and often. Ask things like “What do you think of my performance in the lab so far?”, “Am I expressing myself clearly when showing you these results?”, “What skills do you think I most need to improve?” Many academic centers require formal yearly reviews, but you should try to get informal feedback on a monthly basis. If your mentor is forming a bad opinion of you on the basis of something that is easily changeable or a misunderstanding, then learning this quickly will help solve potential problems down the road. On the other hand, if your mentor’s impression of you is negative and completely off base (in your opinion!), then learning this early and noticing whether or not your mentor changes his/her opinion of you based on your efforts to change will help you to decide whether you are in the right place.

Demonstrate that you are driven
Being a hard-worker is essential to succeed in any field, and academia is no different. From the moment you apply somewhere, chances are that your mentor is trying to find out whether you are passionate about what you do, will complete tasks effectively, and will not give up when facing a challenge. As you begin working in a research lab, be sure to start leaving a good impression immediately by coming in when asked and on time, trying to learn things on your own, being as prepared as possible, and speaking with enthusiasm. Ask questions and give feedback. Don’t let your mentor and other lab members catch you on social media, texting your friends, or sleeping. The younger you are, the more you will be told what to do and not be expected to deviate from explicit instructions. As you transition into becoming a graduate student and as you come closer to completing your graduate degree, you will be expected to be more and more independent. For your mentor to know that you have what it takes to be an independent scientist one day, you have to be a go-getter. Some of the day-to-day tasks you have to complete will not be enjoyable, but you have to be motivated enough to finish them with care. Remember that mentors tend to assign greater responsibilities to those students who have proven themselves with simpler tasks so that excelling at something that is simple can be a stepping-stone. On the other hand, completing not-so-fun tasks is a necessity, and your mentor and coworkers will hold you in higher regard if you help out without complaining. If you find yourself in a position where you are completely unmotivated, then you need to think about making a change.