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Getting involved in research: What to discuss with a potential advisor-mentor

Prospective and new graduate students often contact a professor and say they would like to get involved in research.  This post covers some basic advice that is meant to help you have a productive dialogue with professors about that, whether you are already in graduate school in a specific program (including the students I advise) or at the stage of contemplating going to grad school and searching for the right university, department, and degree program.

students at the computer

Students doing ecosystem modeling research

First, consider what your specific goals and desires are.  “Getting involved in research” means a range of different things to different students and faculty mentors.  In addition, each professor pursues a research program that is, to some extent, uniquely their own.  Faculty with research programs have knowledge about their field as a whole and they may represent their field as a whole within that department.  But when it comes to doing research and publishing papers they pursue certain questions, using certain types of approaches.  As a broad scholar they are familiar with their entire field; but in terms of their original research, they develop a niche within their field.

What are you really looking for?  When you make contact with a faculty member to discuss the possibility of becoming involved in their research group, be honest and forthright about what you are really looking for.  We can’t read your mind, and if you don’t tell us what you want or ask the right questions, we can’t provide the right guidance.  For example, are you looking to:

  • Have an opportunity to work on an ongoing project that includes outdoor fieldwork?
  • Gain laboratory skills?
  • Learn data management and data analysis skills?
  • Be paid to help you cover the costs of graduate school?
  • Contribute to a future journal article, potentially earning status as a coauthor?
  • Simply be part of a successful group of faculty and students, to gain both mentoring and a range of research skills?

If you are imagining some specific thing that you want to do or skill you want to learn, ask yourself how important that is to you and how flexible you are.  Then be up-front about that when you talk to the professor and ask if that opportunity will exist.  If there is a very specific thing you are absolutely committed to doing and learning, then look for a faculty advisor-mentor who can provide that.  (Hint:  this isn’t always the best way to go … see below under ‘what you should be looking for.’)

Learning about research versus actively doing research.  Going forward into academic research has two components:  learning about research on a variety of topics, versus actively doing research, which means using a specific approach to address a specific question.  You need to do both.  Learning about research can cover a wide range of things provided by a wide range of professors; actively doing research means working with an advisor-mentor who has a particular specialty and the relevant infrastructure in place.

For example, in my research group one of the things we work on is invasive plant species in Great Lakes coastal wetlands.  In this, I work in a large collaborative group of faculty, postdocs, and students across five universities.  Together our approaches include fieldwork, laboratory analysis, GIS (Geographic Information Systems), satellite remote sensing, drones, working with wetland managers, and computer modeling of watersheds and wetlands across a range of scales.  Any faculty member on the project could help a student to learn about all of these approaches.  But each professor / team member has the infrastructure in place to do their own piece, so for a student to actively do research that uses a particular approach means they have to work with that faculty member.  Do you see the difference?  While all faculty members understand all the approaches, each faculty member only has the research infrastructure in place to actively do their piece.

Understand the importance of a faculty member’s research infrastructure.  If they actively do fieldwork in wetlands, for example, this requires a field crew (it’s often not safe to work alone outdoors, particularly in wetlands), an existing set of field sites (which can take months to research and arrange), a vehicle and potentially overnight lodging near field sites, the right equipment and detailed methods, a system for transporting and storing and processing samples, and the people who know the workflow.  Similarly, if they actively do computer modeling research on wetlands (which is true in my case), the infrastructure involves the right work space and software and digital infrastructure to organize all the needed data, as well as people who are actively working and testing the model, who understand the relevant literature and methods as well as the model’s strengths and weaknesses and the workflow surrounding the modeling (e.g. parameter estimation, the correct use of input data files, database management of model results, and analysis of model results).

When you approach a professor to ask about becoming involved in her research, ask about her perspective on these issues as well as what specific approaches she has in place that you can get involved in.

Student measuring a tree

Measuring the diameter of a tree at the University of Michigan Biological Station

What you should be looking for.  Research in ecology, environmental science and sustainability science is highly collaborative.  It revolves around writing successful grant proposals that lay out compelling, integrative questions, as well as the planning for an integration of research approaches conducted by a group of individuals with different areas of expertise.  Each project often takes place across academic departments and across multiple universities.  Researchers get to know one another at workshops, conferences and through campus visits, and they form multiple, overlapping collaborations.  They build relationships and cultivate successful collaborations for years.  My best advice:  if you want to get involved in research the way it really is practiced, the sooner you can learn to successfully engage in these group projects, the better.

Learning to work productively in a collaborative group is more important than the specific research question, specific set of approaches, or specific type of ecosystem.

What you want is to find a group of people who are actively and productively working together, meeting regularly, doing something interesting, publishing their results, and presenting at conferences.  You want a group of people who work together to understand the current literature on a topic, the variety of methods and approaches used, what’s known and unknown on the topic, and how it connects more broadly to progress in the field as a whole.  When you develop an idea or a proposal, there will be several people who can quickly and insightfully critique it and steer you in the right direction.  When you run into problems, there will be people who can help you to solve them.  When you have your results and are trying to interpret them, there will be people who quickly “get” what your results show and don’t show.   Use the others in the group to help you learn research skills, collaborative skills, and how to be effective and productive.

Obtaining financial support as a research assistant.  In your conversations with professors, ask how often they are able to provide financial support to their graduate students.  In my field, although universities and departments strive to provide support for graduate students to do research, this is often quite limited. Financial support to do research typically comes from a faculty member who was able to win a competitive grant from a state or federal funding agency such as the National Science Foundation, NASA, or the like.  These grants are super competitive and difficult to obtain, so any funds we are able to obtain are very dear.  In my case I prioritize grant funds for postdocs and PhD students.  For Master’s degree students, sometimes I have a grant that can pay hourly support (meaning pay a graduate student by the hour for 5 to 10 hours per week during the academic year, or more during the summer), and in very unusual circumstances I have had a grant that could pay a student’s tuition for one term.  It depends on the particular grants I have that are currently active, the research skills and abilities needed to complete the work in the grant, and whether I have a current PhD student or postdoc who needs the support (which again is the priority, in my group).   Also ask about possible support through work-study, if you have that as part of a financial aid package (you fill out the FAFSA to be considered for work-study) because those funds may come from a different source.

Ask professors about the opportunities for financial support and they will probably give you an honest answer.  We all recognize that students want to minimize tuition debt and we all wish we had ample funds to support more students.  The ability to provide financial support to do research varies quite a bit from one professor to another — we each have our own priorities and different grants that are active at any particular time.  Also recognize that the availability of financial support to do research varies from one university or department to another, so if the need to be paid is a deal-breaker, be sure to get good information about this before you commit to a specific program or to a specific advisor.

You may be interested in getting involved in the research as a volunteer if no financial support is possible, but still seeking financial support if it’s available.  If this is you, then communicate that to the professor.  Sometimes funds become available.  A typical faculty member may have a few active grant proposals in review at any point in time, and might suddenly receive word that one was funded.  If you are in the right place at the right time and have demonstrated that you can make valuable contributions to the work then you could be in a good position for support in that case.  Some professors may assign small research tasks to multiple students to see if they can be productive and reliable, and when funds become available, use them to support the students who are contributing the most.

I hope you find all of this advice helpful if you are in this position of seeking to get involved in research with a faculty member.  If so, drop me an email and let me know!

Follow this link to learn more about graduate programs in SEAS.