Resuming research work with an ex-professor?
October 25, 2006 1:08 PM   Subscribe

How do I re-establish a research relationship with a professor I kinda-sorta worked with in college a few years ago?

While working on my bachelor's a few years ago, I had managed to secure a spot on a student research team. This team worked closely with a professor who was respectable in his research area. They worked on projects that I found really interesting. After a while, the pressures of other courses were too great, and I just didn't have time to work with (or even attend) the research group anymore. I also felt like I couldn't contribute much to the group; I was unsure my ideas would go over well with the group. I was worried if I was up to par for this talented group. I ended up not talking to this professor after a while.

Now, I'm regretting it. I would like to change jobs, but one thing lacking on my CV is a research project. Since I am genuinely interested in the work that this professor does, and since a project on my CV wouldn't hurt either, is it possible to try again?

First, did I totally burn the bridge here? Do I have a chance in hell after not talking to this professor for so long? I ended up creating this cycle, where, I wanted to talk to them, but I didn't because it had been so long since we had spoken. So I decided that this wasn't the right time, but then it got longer, and longer, until it got to the point where I figured they just wouldn't want to see me anymore. How can I convince the professor that I genuinely do want to work with them, and that it was never my intention to blow them off?

Second, do professors generally work with people who are not involved in academia any longer? I would not be registering as a student, but I would still like to collaborate on a project or, at least, join a team who is already collaborating on a project with this professor. Are professors generally welcome to this idea? Does it matter if the person is employed/unemployed/between jobs? Employed in an industrial research position vs. a traditional industry position?
posted by anonymous to Education (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
First reaquaint yourself with his research and current projects. Review his lab web page and use some library databases to see what he has published since you were working with him. I would sugges you find a particular project that he has been working with and formulate some ideas for further or related work.

Then, you should write a formal letter to him. Remind him who you are and when you worked with him, and what project you were involved in. You shoud state your interests and what sort of arrangement you are interested in. I would encourage you to suggest that you volunteer your time in exchange for his advising and mentoring. Have clear ideas for what you want to do or work on and clearly state them. Mail this letter along with your resume.

Finally, either call him up or email him (a day or so after you mail the letter, but before it is likely there) and reintroduce yourself. Tell him you are interested in working with him again and have sent him a letter outlining your ideas and that he should be receiving it soon.

Follow up in a week or so and set up a time to meet with him. If you are willing to work for free and really did work for him before and have some clear research interests, I imagine he'll be interested.
posted by sulaine at 1:23 PM on October 25, 2006

First of all, if your professor is in the sciences, e-mail is probably superior to a paper letter. E-mail is the primary mode of communication for most of us -- it is easier and cleaner to deal with e-mail than paper, and you want to make this as easy on your former prof. as possible.

Second of all, professors are in general delighted to hear from former students, especially if what they hear is "your work is interesting and I enjoyed working with you."

But finally, you should be aware that professors are constantly battling demands on their time. It is part of their job to oversee research projects by students at their institution -- but not by non-students. So unless the prof. is extremely generous and/or undercommitted, they are probably not going to set up a project just for you. Your best bet is to pitch in on a project that's already underway with current students. I've certainly overseen local high school students in a context like that.
posted by escabeche at 1:51 PM on October 25, 2006

Professors deal with similar situations all the time - usually from long lost students seeking reference letters and the like. I would not necessarily be so formal as sulaine suggests. Just send him an email reintroducing yourself (along the lines of the first couple paragraphs of your question here), then finish by asking whether you can take him for coffee (or drop by his next office hours) to get reacquainted and/or discuss research possibilities. Arrive at the meeting with a good grasp of his current research interests and some concrete suggestions as to how you might contribute.

I'm not sure what kind of research we're talking about here, but you should be prepared for him to say no if your participation would be taking away resources from registered students and/or paid research assistants.
posted by Urban Hermit at 2:02 PM on October 25, 2006

You may be interested in the responses to this suspiciously-similar anonymous AskMe.
posted by nowonmai at 2:23 PM on October 25, 2006

Uh, I shouldn't have said 'suspiciously'. Just 'similar'.
posted by nowonmai at 2:30 PM on October 25, 2006

Like Nowonmai, my first thought was, "I've read this question before."

I spent a lot of years in academia and have approached numerous professors after long absences. In grad school once, I had a sort of academic AWOL experience with my favorite professor, and after I reinitiated contact, I found out --- to my shock --- that he thought he had offended me. I had been (kind of like you) embarrassed that I had been out of contact for so long, and that embarrassment led me not to contact him even longer, and it just got terrible. Finally I girded myself and made myself go see him at his office. He was kind of stern with me for about five minutes, and asked me if he had offended me, and then everything was fine.

I'd say that your approach is likely to be welcomed by the professor. Keep in mind, professors are just people. If you have a good relationship with the professor, the professor likely thinks highly of you and would like to hear from you. No matter that your involvement fizzled out --- I don't think you've burned the bridge.

Whether or not the professor would be willing to work with you, despite your no longer being in academia, I don't know.
posted by jayder at 2:45 PM on October 25, 2006

(iaap) I think Sulaine gives good advice. A little formality is not a bad thing, and it can indicate seriousness of purpose. Having an up to date idea of what the professor works on is also a good idea. Things may well have moved on and he/she is not doing similar work at all.

Some professors have a lot of opportunities for volunteer research assistance. Others have less opportunity -- maybe the very nature of their work means it involves close, hands-on supervision. Some research projects might need more, some less. So what was happening six years ago is a poor guide to the present. having volunteers research assistants can be a great thing, but it is also work for the professor -- it saves work, but causes work, and sometimes the two just don't balance out.

Still, it doesn't hurt to try. BY demonstrating at the beginning that you are serious you increase your chances. Most professors are not interested in dabblers.

Finally, in my own experience, I can take on a limited number (quite a few, but not unlimited) of volunteers, assitants, assistant collaborators, etc., and I feel obliged to make current students a priority. If I didn't, then current students would not have the same opportunities that past ones did. So, in my own case, I would have to carefully balance your interest and experience and likely supervision requirements against my obligation to give opportunity to the current cohort of students, some of whom might be less keen, less qualified, less able, less interesting, less promising..... so by all means put yourself forward but remember there may be reasons that do not relate to your abilities or your relationship to this professor that make it awkward or impossible for you to resume your former activities. Good luck!

(and, since it isn't clear, if this is any kind of paid or remunerated work, it is almost certainly limitied to current students, in my experience)
posted by Rumple at 4:25 PM on October 25, 2006

I think you should read the professors latest papers first and then write a letter. However, there is no way this person is going to work with you. You have a history of being flaky, and you are have no accountablility now--- you are not a student working for credit or money. If you write a letter, I would address these issues by showing how your recent experience has proven you are not flaky, and by coming up with some reason why you can be held accountable if you turn out to be flaky again.
posted by about_time at 5:44 PM on October 25, 2006

I spent a couple of years doing unpaid work in a research lab without being a registered student. It was a great lab; we were doing interesting work; and because I had some pertinent and unusual skills and background experience, I was a perfect fit for some of the existing projects.

I didn't do it to fill up a CV; I did it because it was interesting and because I was considering grad school in the field. (Which I didn't end up doing, but I don't regret a second I spent in the lab.)

Other people I know have done the same thing. However, it's definitely unusual, and you're probably safest volunteering a tiny, regular chunk of time to help with an existing project. If that's accepted and goes well, you can take things from there.
posted by tangerine at 5:47 PM on October 25, 2006

I think I tried to answer this question before.
posted by R. Mutt at 6:14 PM on October 25, 2006

Perhaps you could do this in several stages. First, send an email reintroducing yourself and catching up with the professor. Then, after the professor replies, you can send another email mentioning that you want to change fields into something related to the research you used to do, and ask for any ideas he/she might have about getting research experience. This enables the professor to let you know if there is a position in his/her lab for you, or if there are any open positions in colleagues' labs, but without putting as much pressure on them as just asking for it straight out.
posted by gokart4xmas at 6:15 PM on October 25, 2006

Thank you all for the excellent, excellent responses. I appreciate the different perspectives.

I deeply regret not finding the original post that addressed this issue, as nowonmai, R. Mutt, and others have pointed out. I tried searching for similar posts but I was unable to find that one.

Other forums would have had me tarred and feathered by now.
posted by marciamarciamarcia at 6:41 PM on October 25, 2006

(Postdoc, UK) I get unsolicited requests from students and masters students and other interested parties by email about once a month. I've never heard of these people, they're usually writing from (say) India, they send a form letter saying I'm interested in Computer Networks, Programming languages, quantum computing, natural language processing, computer vision, database theory, neural networks..." (I do one of these things). They nearly always want a desk, a computer, some form of funding, and the opportunity to put our university name on their CV. I understand that the lecturers get more of these requests and the full profs even more.

Very occasionally you get a proper, targetted request from someone who's bothered to find out what you're interested in, who's interested in it too, and who isn't asking for any renumeration. These requests get serious consideration - for example, we've a couple of masters students from an overseas institution working in the department right now on 3 month internships, In the last year I've worked directly with an italian intern for 3 months, and in the research group I'm in we've also had a russian for a month and an indian for a month. It helps if they've got a recommendation from someone you've heard of.

I'd imagine if I'd actually heard of the person I'd be even more interested (unless they were a nightmare to work with, but you don't sound like that).

So I'd say go for it. Write a polite, short, targetted email including a link to a pdf of your CV on the web. Be clear you're not asking for money, but for a short internship out of interest in the research area and for the research experience. And if you don't get the response you're after, and if you can afford to be someone's research slave for a while, write off to other institutions. You're CV is already polished, and a day spent researching individuals and targetting emails could well come up with something useful.
posted by handee at 1:14 AM on October 26, 2006

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