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Finding a Mentor


If you are interested in learning more about faculty research expertise, browse faculty research websites and read their publications and abstracts. If you are in your first, second or third year at Emory, consider applying for the Research Partners Program.

Research the Possibilities

What areas of research interest you? It is likely that you have a few topics that truly catch your attention.

Use local media, the library, and other web resources to seek additional information. Talk to your academic advisor and to your instructors for suggestions. It is very likely that one or more researchers in the Atlanta area are currently working on topics that you enjoy. Friends and classmates may also be able to suggest faculty members that have a reputation for being good research mentors.

If you have work-study funds, you can try to find work at a laboratory of interest (this can be particularly useful to first-year students, who often have trouble finding research mentors due to their somewhat limited academic background).

Contact Potential Mentors

Once you have some likely mentors in mind, you will need to contact them to determine whether they are available for mentoring undergraduate researchers. Faculty are usually limited in time and resources, and you want to determine availability as soon as possible.

Call or e-mail the researcher and explain that you are interested in doing research. If you plan to apply for a URP program, volunteer to forward program materials to them (don't assume they know about SURE or RPP). In addition, suggest several possible times to set up an appointment to discuss the possibility of a collaboration.

Do not be discouraged if you receive no reply: it is possible this researcher is out of town or busy with a grant deadline. Try someone else in your list. There is nothing wrong with approaching more than one potential mentor simultaneously. Your goal is to find a great mentor and research environment and shopping around IS allowed.

If you end up with more than one offer, decide which one you will explore and decline the other offer with many thanks. This way, the researcher that you turn down will be able to recruit other students and you will maintain a professional and responsible reputation.

Meet with Potential Mentors

Why should this busy stranger agree to mentor your research? The answer is simple: you would be an asset to their lab. As an undergraduate, you are not expected to be a fully trained expert; however, you should have a general idea (the more detailed, the better) of what this researcher's work entails.

Prepare for the interview. Bring a list of questions to ask, such as what kinds of projects might be available for you to work on and whether this faculty has mentored other undergraduates. Discuss your interest in continuing this collaboration during the academic year. Take notes.

Discuss how this experience is important to your future career plans. If possible, indicate a project in which you would like to be involved (whether that is a project already in progress, or a project you devised on your own). Discuss compensation: are you looking for a paid position, a work-study position, do you wish to volunteer, or are you interested in doing research for credit? Regarding funding, ask whether the faculty's grants may support undergraduate research. (NSF grants allow for supplements for all students, and NIH grants allow for supplements to support minorities.

If your chosen researcher is unaware of these possibilities, refer them to Undergraduate Research Programs, ec.sire@emory.edu. Bring a transcript of your coursework, should you need to discuss your academic background. You want to appear informed, prepared, and eager to learn and work.

Follow Up

Make time to call or send an email thanking the researcher for meeting with you. A short e-mail will do. If the researcher is unable to offer you his/her support, do not be discouraged. Think of this interview as good practice for the next one. If the interview leads to an offer to collaborate, set up a time to further discuss the project, and ask for materials or references to help you prepare.

Clarify Expectations

Find out as much as you can about the project and the research environment before you accept to participate. Discuss issues such as how many hours/week can you devote to the project (and is this in agreement with your research mentor's expectations)? Who will supervise you (and are you comfortable with this arrangement)?

How often will you meet with your faculty mentor (or will you mostly interact with another laboratory member; is the arrangement acceptable to you)? How will your performance be evaluated? What skills will your project require and if you need training, when can this training begin? Discuss whether you need training in lab safety, use of radioisotopes, animal handling, or whether you need any tests/vaccinations.

What is the laboratory protocol for notebook keeping? Will you be working in a project that might lead to a publication?

The above questions are offered as a starting point. In our experience, most misunderstandings between students and mentors stem from a lack of clear expectations on these issues.

See Emory's Guidelines for the Responsible Conduct of Scholarship and Research for a primer on the rights and responsibilities of individuals involved in academic research. We strongly encourage all students interested in research to explore their sponsoring institution's Guidelines.

Get Started!

If you are applying for a specific program, like SURE or an external summer program, find out what steps you need to take before the application or before the beginning of the program. For example, SURE applicants from Emory will need to develop a proposal for their application. Plan accordingly to have adequate time for your mentor to approve your proposal.

Once you have completed any preparatory work, get started! Whether you are compensated for your work or are a volunteer, maintain the same level of professionalism that you would at a job or internship. This will be beneficial as you look to take on more responsibility or a higher level of research in the future or when you ask for letters of recommendation from your mentors.

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