Saturday, October 11, 2008

How to guarantee you will not be considered for a student internship

Since I founded the Collaborative Software Development Laboratory in 1991, I have provided research positions and internships to students from across the world, including Germany, Italy, India, China, Japan, Australia, Iceland, and Indonesia. Providing these opportunities to students, and learning from their differing cultural backgrounds is one of the great pleasures of being a professor.

Every semester I receive dozens of emails from students around the world who are requesting consideration for a research position of some sort in my lab. Unfortunately, most of them are quite similar to the one I just received this morning:

Dear Prof.,
To introduce myself, I am a 3rd year student of the Department of [Deleted] Majoring in Statistics and Informatics(5 yr.Integrated) at [Deleted], [Deleted]'s premier research organization, looking at the possibility of obtaining a position for Summer Internship, gelling with my academic background. I am aware of the superior quality of research at your institute ,I have decided that your current research work matches my interests to a remarkable degree.

Enclosed please find a copy of my resume. A number of details about my profile appear in the same. Yet no resume can comprehensively spell out everything.If my profile, prima facie matches with your requirements for a Summer Intern, please revert back, so that I could furnish any more relevant information.May I please also enquire whether some funding may be available for this internship in the form of a grant or scholarship?
Looking forward to a reply in the affirmative.

If selected by your consideration I promise to complete my assignments with utmost sincerity.

Thanking you
Your Sincerely....

There are, of course, a number of grammatical errors in this email, but since this student is clearly a non-native speaker, those errors would not deter me in the slightest from considering him for a research internship.

What makes this request a non-starter is the fact that this student sent me a form letter: there is not a single detail in this letter that provides evidence that the student has any clue about my research interests. Indeed, this student does not even take the time to address the email to me personally!

So, with the goal of helping other students who might be interested in academic experiences outside of their current environment, here is a simple guideline:

Send 10 personal, carefully written emails to professors whose research interests really do match your own, with concrete details about their research and how it intersects with your academic interests. These 10 emails have higher odds of success than (for example) 1000 generic emails sent to every professor in the country of your choice.

What might a "personal, carefully written email" include? Here are some ideas:
  • Include the professor's actual name.
  • Include the professor's actual laboratory name.
  • Include references to at least two recent publications of the professor, with questions and/or comments about the papers that indicate that you have read the papers and reflected on them.
  • Include some simple, but concrete ideas on how you might contribute to the research. These don't have to be feasible or ground breaking. Just demonstrate that you're trying.
  • Optionally, include other areas of interest of yours, which might have some interdisciplinary connection.
This, of course, takes time: perhaps five or six hours per email.

When I receive this kind of email from a student, I consider it carefully, and even if their interests don't really match mine, I reply out of respect for the energy they clearly put into their request and try to provide pointers to colleagues with better matching interests.

And there you see the key to why this approach is more effective: if you, as a student, devote this kind of energy up front on a small number of letters to a small number of professors, you can enlist our help in the search process. In terms of searching the space of appropriate research institutes, having professors guide your search is significantly more effective than spewing out 1000 generic emails.

Have I ever received such a letter from a student? Yes, several times, and in fact the most recent student who introduced himself this way is arriving in my lab on Monday to start his internship.

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