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Monday, June 24, 2024

Warming up to cold emails: four tips to land a UW research opportunity

Cold emails can be intimidating, but they're a key to research opportunities across campus


Many innovations and breakthroughs on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus are fueled by generations of undergraduate research assistants. Doing research as an undergraduate can boost your resume, help shape your future career and bring you in contact with lifelong connections. One of the most common ways of finding a research position is by cold emailing — emailing a professor or researcher you’ve never met before — and asking for an opportunity. However, cold emails are intimidating to send and difficult to formulate. Here are a few tips for sending a successful email and landing a research opportunity on campus.

  1. Do your research

Before starting your cold email, do your research. First, identify what you want to do. Are you someone who wants to work in the field in far off places? Or, are you looking to learn more skills at the lab bench? Either way, find a lab that matches your interests and goals. Your department's home page is a good place to start.

Once you’ve identified a lab you find interesting, identify the principal investigator (PI) and current graduate students, and learn more about their research. While a lab may have similar overarching goals, individual people will be working on a variety of projects with a variety of needs. Read the most recent publications from the lab and listen to talks from lab members. Having knowledge and a good foundation will help you formulate a strong cold email.

  1. Be specific and concise

PIs and graduate students are very, very busy. While you may be tempted to explain your entire background and breadth of scientific interest, a cold email is not a resume nor a cover letter. Instead, focus on the most important and persuasive information. Start by introducing yourself and stating why you’re contacting them — there’s no need to beat around the bush. Tell them why you’re interested in their lab, citing specific projects or publications. Don’t just summarize their website or main lab tenants, try to incorporate specific details you found interesting. A strong candidate will appear interested and motivated. Being able to show this in a concise way will set you up for success.

  1. Don’t be afraid to send follow ups

PIs and graduate students are human like the rest of us, and receive a lot of emails. If your contactee hasn’t responded to your email after a few days or a week, send a short but polite follow up. You may have to send multiple follow up emails, but remain patient. Your contactee will eventually respond — it may just take a few reminders to get the reply you’re looking for.

  1. Push through rejection

The first cold email you send may not land you the internship or research opportunity you wanted. But, each cold email is a connection to a new professor, researcher or graduate student. It may feel disheartening when a lab cannot take you on as an intern, but it may open up new opportunities in the future. 

Keep sending those emails. Eventually you will find a lab that fits, joining other researchers in pursuing the Wisconsin Idea.

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