Working with professors
By Lucy Ewing
In researching career prep opportunities, college students often turn first to the tool they know best — the internet. In doing so, they may overlook the best connection they can make, with one or more of their professors. Share this helpful FAQ with your motivated student!
Q. Should I approach my professor or wait for an invitation?
A. Definitely go to your professors’ office hours! They want to get to know you, and it’s the best way to do it. One professor said, “Sometimes I’ll take note of who has done particularly well in my courses and recruit them for an opportunity, but when students approach me it’s the most straightforward way for me to take notice.”
Q. What kind of work would professors have for me?
A. There are a range of opportunities. Strong students may be asked to assist with instruction and grading in a regular course or in summer programs. One student recalled a summer teaching assistant position she arranged the spring of her sophomore year. “It was a good bridge job, because I was able to have a full-time working schedule and make money that summer, but was also able to stay in the comfort of my own campus and college town. Being a T.A. is also considered a respectable job around school, because you have to be a role model for other students, and you are showing that you care about the school and are interested in being involved.”
There is also a big need across academic departments for undergraduates to help with qualitative research, such as doing interviews, observations, or focus groups. Data analysis is in high demand. Science labs require care of lab animals and repetitive tests. Students in the arts may assist professors in performance or video production.
Q. What skills are required?
A. Some projects require knowledge in the field, and for all, solid general skills are essential. Since many college projects are research-oriented, professors look for people with good interview and data analysis skills. “Excellent grades, dependability, and maturity are mandatory,” one professor stated. “I also look for creativity and a sense of curiosity.”
Q. How valuable is my contribution?
A. Your time, talent, and life experience are worth a lot. “I really like undergraduate analysts, because they can take on one task and see it through, while my time gets divided up,” one professor said. A music professor described how a gifted student with an “unrequited love of music” was recruited from a core music appreciation course into a higher-level ensemble and ended up collaborating with the professor on performances and projects. A sociology professor recounted how a bright undergraduate and former teen mother offered a unique perspective on a research study, resulting in better interview questions. “Her rapport with participants was great, and she got into graduate school on the strength of the skills she learned. Our project was better for her participation.”
Q. Are these paid positions?
A. There are many benefits to working with a professor, and money is one of them. You may be paid out of a professor’s grant or through the UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program) that provides funding and/or credit to undergraduate students who volunteer for faculty-mentored research projects. Professors can help guide you through the process.
Generally, you apply for funding by submitting a proposal during “Calls for Proposals,” which occur throughout the school year. The Calls are announced on the school website and also communicated to faculty members and the undergraduate counseling offices. Typically, students have one month from the announcement to submit their proposals. All undergraduate students from all disciplines and majors who are participating in a research project with a faculty advisor (usually a full-time professor at the university) are eligible. Proposals are prepared by the student applicant and jointly submitted by the student and the faculty advisors.
Skills gained and resume enrichment are obvious benefits as well. Course credit is often included, which is worth thousands of dollars. And, students enjoy being part of a team effort on projects.
“I reached out to multiple professors during my time at MIT, some of whom I wasn’t even in classes with yet,” a recent graduate said. “I ended up working under four UROP grants as an undergraduate. An early one where I studied aircraft noise and emissions over metropolitan airports was not necessarily the hands-on engineering I was hoping for, but I was happy to learn about the industry, meet members of my future department, and learn how science influences policy. Everything I was able to work on and learn about by seeking opportunities like UROPs and internships defined my college experience for me. Now when I go back to schools to recruit, these experiences are what I look for in an applicant.”
Q. What if I want an off-campus internship?
A. College professors are also a great source of internships. Companies and alumni often seek out particular universities and departments and will pay attention if you have been referred by the university. Most universities have internship offices that help facilitate these opportunities. Internships are a proving ground for future employees, so select your experience carefully and show your best stuff!
“My first summer internship I accepted for no pay,” one recent graduate said, “but I earned three school credits, the equivalent of one class in my major. Even though it was a hardship not to be making money, I knew it was only for a short period of time, and that it would help me get my foot in the door. Sure enough, the next summer when I was looking for a second internship, my prior experience helped me get a paid internship. I worked hard at both, even when I wasn’t being paid, because I knew every company would be a stepping stone to the next. You never know who you are going to need a recommendation from, or who you will run into later on in life. Also, of course, you want to establish good working habits for yourself.”
Q. When should I approach my professors?
A. Timing is key. Approach a faculty member right at the beginning of the semester if possible. Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU’s) appear in the middle of the fall semester, with students applying by early spring. Some professors like to be approached a full semester in advance, so if you are seeking work opportunities for the summer or fall of 2016, now is the time to be brave and touch base.
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