Getting a great research position under a top researcher is a very important aspect of graduate school. Some even set their eyes on getting a research position at a specific university or with a specific professor. Unfortunately, it is a very common experience for even the best and brightest prospective students to apply to many universities and groups only to get consistently denied or ignored.
Consider Your Approach
Try to understand this from the professor’s perspective – taking on a new student is a huge risk and a huge commitment. That student may not be an effective researcher or not have the work ethic to be successful. That student may be a bad personality fit and tear apart your research group. That student may receive all the professors’ attention and training and then leave the group without contributing.
It is incredibly rare for a faculty to have an unfilled position, and such positions typically get filled very quickly, usually with someone the professor is familiar with. The chances that your e-mail arrives at a professor’s inbox right when they happen to have an open position, and that they’d be willing to risk taking on an unknown student is as close to zero as it gets.
Networking is Key
I advocate a “give-give-get” approach to networking. It is a big mistake to ask for a favor the very first time you meet somebody. Doing this will get you a lot of very polite “no” responses and your network will be no bigger.
Instead, make that first contact all about doing some favor for them. For example, many years ago I attended a conference and one of the speakers was a professor that I very much wanted to work with. What would have happened if I approached that person and said something like “Hello, I loved your talk. Do you think we could work together?” I think I would have gotten a very polite “no.”
Instead, I paid close attention to their presentation. They mentioned they’d produced a device design but had no way to simulate it. That night in my hotel room, I stayed up late and simulated their device. The next day I approached that professor with my simulation results. Long story made short…we ended up working together and even published a few papers together. This was a textbook way to network. To this day, I continue to meet people through my online content. This is another form of giving first before asking for anything.
Steps to Landing your Dream Research Position
See what you have done? Without asking for a job, you managed to tell them that you have skills, you are passionate about the topic, and you are looking for opportunities. If you keep corresponding with that person for a few months, you are now likely to be on their short list of people to reach out to when a new opportunity arises.
It’s hard to be successful at landing your dream research position if you just start asking for opportunities without showing them that you’re worth the effort you’re asking them to put into you. Instead, take some initiative and develop some useful skills. Think about what you can do for others before asking what they can do for you. Understand things from the other person’s perspective and approach them in ways that do not put them in an awkward position. Make yourself valuable and demonstrate that value. If you do all these things, your chances of getting that dream position will be orders of magnitude higher than they would be otherwise. It will take some work on your part, but everything good in life requires work.