Finding a Mentor
What you need to know to get a research position
Understand the Research Environment
Remember that “research” refers to any time you are working with faculty to create, design, or discover. Also remember that Washington State University is a “research university.”
In general, faculty at a research university such as WSU do more than teach classes. What makes a research university different from a primarily undergraduate institution is that two critical aspects of the research university is the creation of knowledge and the dissemination of that knowledge. That doesn’t mean that every faculty here is working on research, or that faculty members at other schools are not carrying out research projects; but in general, an emphasis on the creation and dissemination of knowledge serves as a distinction which makes the nation’s research universities different from other schools.
WSU is also a “land grant university.” As such for the State of Washington, we balance teaching, research, and extension to the state. And that means you have opportunities to work with world-class faculty in fields ranging from agriculture to zoology, and English to engineering.
Working with Faculty as Your Mentor
Ask yourself why you want to choose to work with faculty on a research project. You’ll be part of a team (even a team of two) with that comes rights and responsibilities. Working on research projects is not a hobby, it’s not something you can do only in your spare time, and it’s not something where the faculty member is there to help you do whatever you want to do on your “pet” project. You’re entering into a mentoring relationship.
It’s important to know that different faculty and fields have different standards and expectations. And that means there are different ways of working with faculty:
- Working for academic credit (either a 499-numbered course or for a specific course)
- Working for pay, which includes:
- Hourly “timeslip” work.
- Stipend-supported work where you receive a fixed amount as a scholarship.
- work-study support where the government matches the hourly pay from the faculty.
Finding a mentor
To find someone you might be interested in working with, you should begin by checking out the research (i.e. academic scholarship or creative activities) WSU faculty members are currently doing. In other words, you need to research them.
Start with a Web search targeting WSU and the specific research topics you are interested in. Furthermore, perform a search within a specific WSU website once you have identified a group within WSU that is conducting the types of research you are interested in.
- Tip: Universities are organized into various colleges, schools, departments, centers, institutes, laboratories, and a host of other categories. They may not be named what you would think in terms of the research they conduct. At WSU, we don’t have a department of cancer research, or a school of alternative energy, or a college of biofuels. But we do have faculty working in all these areas.
Talk with others to find the names of possible mentors; for example, ask other students or a professional advisor in your department.
Go to some of the on-campus “poster sessions” where students are presenting their work. Poster sessions are a powerful opportunity that can enable you to informally interview people about undergraduate research opportunities, learn the names of potential mentors, and get a strong sense for what their work is actually like.
Etiquette and good first impressions.
“Be prepared” is more than a general admonition. It is the best way to respectfully approach a person new to you who may turn out to help you develop your career by becoming your mentor.
When you find the name of someone you might be interested in working with, it’s usually best to email or call them as a first step.
- Provide a concise personal introduction.
- State briefly, but clearly, how you are interested in their field, specialty, and particular work. Be sure to have done your homework on what exactly they do! (For example, you can find and carefully read their WSU faculty profile online, or you can look up and study the academic articles they have published.)
- Ask if they are interested in getting help on their research projects from an undergraduate researcher.
At this point, if the faculty member and you hit it off to the extent that you decide to meet in person:
- Come prepared by bringing a printed copy of your up-to-date resume to the meeting.
- Be ready to discuss your background, skills, and motivations as they relate to working with the faculty member.
- Know how many hours you can work on a project each week. Bring your class schedule to help with scheduling your specific working times.
- Be specific about the time period in which you want to participate—during the school year, in summer, or both.