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Tips for Writing an Email to Faculty about Research

For many students, the best way to get involved in research is to email faculty/primary investigators directly to ask about research opportunities. An email is an opportunity to highlight your shared interest in their research topic and to highlight attributes that will make you a good undergraduate researcher to work with. This page will help you write a concise and targeted email to maximize your chance at a reply.

The subject

Be short, but be clear what you are writing about. Something like “Undergraduate Research Opportunities in Your Lab” or “Openings for Undergraduates to do Research in [your research topic]” should work. Do not simply use “Hi” or “Research” as a subject.

The greeting

A formal greeting is always a safe bet, so always address the recipient using a proper title. When contacting faculty or postdoctoral fellows, “Dear Dr. ______,” is appropriate. If you are contacting someone without a doctorate or M.D., use “Dear Mr. ______,” or “Dear Ms.______” If you are unsure, always err on the side of using “Dr.” Never open an e-mail with “To whom it may concern” or any similarly vague phrase.

The main text

In the first line, identify yourself with your year in school and your major or anticipated major as well as your interest in research (e.g., “I’m a sophomore political science and public policy major looking to do research on voting rights in the South.” or “I’m a first year Neuroscience major and hope to get involved in Alzheimer’s research as soon as I can.”). You also want to explain why you why you are contacting this faculty in particular. It helps to mention how you know the recipient or where you got their contact information. If you took a class with them or have spoken with someone doing research with them, say so. If you are contacting them based on their profile on the department website, it is fine to say something like “When lookin for research opportunities in [subject area], I found information about your research on the department’s website.”

Next, explain your specific interest in this faculty’s research. Your goal here is to establish a shared passion for the particular area in which this faculty member conducts research — the more specific, the better. Are there aspects of their research that fascinate you? Do you want to be able to contribute to the understanding of some specific problem or issue? Is there something about your past classwork or research experience that sparked your interest? If there are broader motivations that drive you, include a sentence in your email explaining them. In addition, it can be helpful to pick a recent paper or book they’ve published and read or skim it. You don’t have to sound like an expert, but it helps to mention a recent finding that interests you and possibly ask a good question about their research (e.g., “Is the protein you study also regulated in a cell cycle-dependent manner?”). Be sure to describe any relevant experience or completed courses that would make you well suited to do research with the faculty, but keep in mind your shared interest/passion may be just as important as your background.

One word of caution: you don’t want to make it seem that their lab or their research project is only a stepping stone to the next step in your career (graduate school or medical school) — this might turn off many who are devoted to research and want to recruit students with a shared passion.

Grades and your CV/resume

While grades are certainly not the only factor faculty will consider, you may wish to include your GPA if you feel that it merits mentioning. However, refrain from making it the focal point of a sentence; instead, you can bring it up in the context of wanting some experience outside of class (e.g., “I am enjoying my classes so far and doing well (my GPA is 3.7), but I feel that I will learn a lot more by exploring my interests beyond the classroom”). Similarly, if you have a CV/resume that includes relevant research experience, you may want to include it (e.g., “I’ve attached my resume in case it might be helpful for you to know a bit more about me.”). If your academic qualifications are not as great as you’d hoped (for example, your GPA is on the lower end), you can put off attaching the CV for now and just state that you would be happy to send a CV or any other material if needed.

Concluding sentences and closing

Now you are ready to wrap up with a brief concluding statement. Thank the recipient for their time and ask for an opportunity to meet with them to discuss their research projects and to how to get involved in the type of research they do. A warm but simple closing (“Sincerely,” or “Best regards,”) is fine. It may help to include your email or phone number under your name if you have invited the recipient to contact you.

General considerations and next steps

First, remember to keep the email reasonably short. Two small paragraphs should cover everything you need say. Also, remember to proofread carefully. Spelling and grammar errors will reflect negatively and your attention to detail. Don’t use slang or abbreviations common in texting. Think of the e-mail as something you would turn in for a grade. That said, be yourself! While it is best to be formal, the email does not have to be bland; let some of your personality show through. Lastly, if you don’t receive a reply after about two weeks, it’s okay to forward your original email back to the recipient and politely add “Dear Dr. ______, I’m writing to follow up on my earlier email about research opportunities in [your area of research]. I remain interested in speaking with you about your research if you are able. Thank you in advance for your time and consideration.” Faculty are very busy and your persistence may be appreciated, so it’s even okay to send another follow up email after another few weeks if you don’t hear back. After that, it may be time to move on to other opportunities.

Sample email

Dear Dr. ______,

I am a sophomore Computer Science major, and I am especially interested in your research on artificial intelligence.

With artificial intelligence constantly evolving, I am interested in exploring its true capabilities and how machine learning can improve language processing. While looking for research opportunities to explore my passions within artificial intelligence, I came across your Natural Language Processing Group at UNC. Connecting the capabilities of artificial intelligence and exploring its ability to communicate with human language is very captivating. I am enjoying my classes so far and doing well (My GPA is 4.0), but I am eager to supplement my classroom learning with a research opportunity. I feel that I would be able learn more about artificial intelligence by becoming a part of your research group or a similar project on campus. I’ve attached my resume in case it’s helpful for you to know a bit more about me and my research background.

I would appreciate an opportunity to briefly meet with you or someone in your research group to discuss your research and how I might be able to support your work at some point in the next three years. If you are able to meet with me, please let me know some times you are available to talk. Thank you in advance for your time and consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

[include a signature with your Name, Major, Class of 202_]