Finding a Faculty Mentor

Vanderbilt doesn’t just pride itself on the scholarly accomplishments of its faculty, but also prides itself on the commitment that faculty make to mentoring their students, both at graduate and undergraduate level. Undergraduate students routinely work in research groups and have their work published right alongside graduate students, postdoctoral students, and faculty. Our faculty know how much more enriching a subject can become when a research project focuses and applies what is learned in the classroom.

Despite all this, it can still seem like a daunting task to ask a leading expert in a field if you can do research alongside them when you have just cracked open the introductory textbook. Finding a faculty mentor, however, is one of the most important components to doing research. A good faculty mentor will introduce you to the techniques and common practices of a field, expose you to much of the current work being done in the field, and serve as a liaison to other researchers and people of influence in the field. In finding a faculty mentor, we offer this advice:

-Talk to the professors teaching your classes. They know you from class and may have a good idea of what your strengths and weaknesses are. Even if you know that the professor teaching your class may not be doing the research you are interested in, he or she will likely know other faculty members who may be a good fit.

-Do your homework (and we don’t mean the assigned classwork). Most faculty members have a biography and a CV (a curriculum vitae, or a list of everything they have published and presented in their academic career) on their department’s website or their own website. Read a few of their papers. Even if you don’t understand everything that is going on, you’ll have a basic idea of their research interests. If you like what you read, a professor will appreciate your dedication and proactiveness when you communicate with each other. If you don’t like what you read, then you know that a specific field may not be for you.

-Email is your best friend. Send an email to a professor introducing yourself and your interest in your field. If you don’t receive a response, follow up. Professors are very busy and may not see every email that they receive.

-Ask fellow undergraduates. A lot of the older students have been doing undergraduate research themselves. They will be able to relate what the research experience was like from their perspective.

-Talk to TA’s and other graduate students. Graduate students are at a stage of their education where they have more experience than undergraduates, but are still learning themselves. This can bring a valuable perspective to your search for research opportunities.