Speculative approaches for research placements | The Careers Service Speculative approaches for research placements – Oxford University Careers Service
Oxford logo
Expired news

Speculative approaches for research placements

Blogged by Fiona Whitehouse on November 30, 2016.

The Careers Service and Internship Office recently launched the Laidlaw Internship Programme in Research and Leadership. This new programme offers undergraduates in any discipline and any year of study the opportunity to undertake a fully-funded research project at a world-leading institution of their choice, and an accredited leadership training programme.

The Laidlaw Programme is student-led; that is, we encourage and support undergraduate students to define and develop their own research project independently, from approaching a supervisor at their host institution, to developing an appropriate methodology, undertaking the research, analysing the results and communicating their findings to a wider audience.

One of the most common queries I have received during the last week is “how do I find and approach a host supervisor?” Building and maintaining relationships is an invaluable key skill in your personal and professional life but it can be daunting to approach a new contact, particularly outside your own department or institution. Here are some top tips for students reaching out to potential supervisors for a research placement.

  1. The human connection. If your proposed contact works in a related discipline, chances are that someone you know, knows them! Ask around (supervisors, tutors, colleagues, friends) and request an introduction, either in person at an event, or via email. Once you have been introduced, don’t wait for your contact to get in touch with you. Send them a follow-up note promptly – and don’t forget to thank the person who made the introduction!
  2. Do your research. Don’t make a general approach to the entire faculty of a department, and don’t send the same email to multiple people simultaneously. Identify who you want to work with and how that person can contribute to or develop your project. When communicating with this person, try to strike a balance between communicating your enthusiasm and demonstrating your intended professional contribution to this area of research. Awareness of your contact’s achievements and research interests is great; unending flattery is not. Demonstrating that you are qualified to undertake the project is great; exaggerating your abilities is not.
  3. Get to the point. If you are making a speculative application via email, you should introduce yourself and state the purpose of the email in the first two sentences. “I am a current Biochemistry undergraduate and am developing an 8-week research project which I hope to undertake under your supervision/in your laboratory/with your research group as part of the Laidlaw Internship Programme in Research and Leadership.” Then, outline your proposed project or area of interest, but don’t include an entire research proposal or lengthy background information. Be concise and focus on the areas in which you would like your proposed supervisor to contribute – “my proposed project is an investigation of X, with a particular emphasis on the use of Y, which is currently under development at your laboratory, as part of my methodology”. Signpost your proposed contact to more information about the internship scheme/programme with weblinks so they can understand the context of your approach.
  4. Know what you want, and ask for actions– outline what you want your new contact to do in response to your email. Don’t be vague – requests for “thoughts” or “feedback” are too broad and will discourage your new contact from responding to you. Ask yourself what you would like the ‘next step’ to be (a meeting? a phone call?), and give your contact an easy way to indicate their interest. For example: “If my proposed project is of interest to you, I would be very pleased to come to your laboratory to discuss further details – please let me know when it would be convenient to do so.”
  5. Persevere– successful and helpful people are usually the busiest people – precisely because everybody wants successful and helpful people ‘on their team’! If you have not heard from your contact within a week, follow up with another email (and state “I am following up on my previous email and hope that you would be interested in supervising my project”) or better still, pick up the phone and talk to them. If you are convinced that your proposed institution is the best one for your research but your proposed supervisor is unable to oversee your project, ask if there is scope to be supervised by a postdoctoral researcher or another member of the research group / team.
  6. Be bold– don’t apologise for ‘bothering’ your new contact – you will be undertaking a project in a professional capacity, and your communications should reflect this. Undergraduate research opportunities are scarce, and defining the parameters of your own work for the first time can feel uncomfortable. Respond positively to suggestions about your research from your host supervisor and colleagues and adapt to changing circumstances, but stay committed to the vision of your project. Good research is a self-reflective process and involves constantly rejecting, refining and developing ideas: if you get to the end of your project and can identify what you should have done differently, you’ve succeeded!

See the Careers Service webpages for more information about the Laidlaw Programme, about finding work experience opportunities, and making speculative applications.