How to Do Research With a Professor

by Jason Eisner (2012)


This is a bit of advice for lucky students who get to do research with a professor.

Take this opportunity seriously. Either you make it your top priority, or you don't do it at all. That's the message. Read the rest of the page if you want to know why and how.

Why This Webpage?

I'd find it awkward to say these things directly to a nice undergrad or master's student I was starting to work with. It would feel like talking down to them, whereas I like my research collaborators—however junior—to talk with me comfortably as equals, have fun, and come up with half the ideas.

Still, it's important to understand up front what the pressures are on faculty-student collaborations. So here are some things to bear in mind.

How the Professor Sees It

[If the professor is female/male, click here.]

Your research advisor doesn't get much credit for working with junior students, and would find it easier and safer to work with senior students. It's just that someone gave him/her a chance once: that's how he/she ended up where he/she is today. He/She'd like to pay that debt forward.

But should it be paid forward to you? Choosing you represents a substantial commitment on your advisor's part, and a vote of confidence in you.

Time Investment

The hours that your advisor spends with you, one-on-one, are hours that he/she no longer has available for

So he/she does expect that you'll pay him/her back, by working as hard as he/she did when he/she got his/her chance.

Research Agenda Investment

Your advisor is not only devoting time to you, but taking a risk. You are being entrusted with part of his/her research agenda. The goal is to make new discoveries and publish them on schedule. If you drop the ball, then your advisor and others in the lab will miss important publication deadlines, or will get scooped by researchers elsewhere, or will be unable to take the next step that was depending on you.

So, don't start doing research with the idea that it's something "extra" that may or may not work out. This is not an advanced course that you can just drop or do poorly in. Unless your advisor agrees otherwise, you are a critical player in the mission—you have a responsibility not to let others down. Remember, someone is taking a chance on you.

Opportunity Cost

I heard once that your boyfriend or girlfriend will ask increasingly tough questions as your relationship ages:

  1. "Am I getting something out of it?"
  2. "Am I getting back as much as I'm putting in?"
  3. "Am I getting as much as I'm worth?"

Your advisor may also ask these questions. At first, he/she'll be happy that he/she attracted a smart student to work on a problem that needed working on. But he/she may sour if he/she comes to feel that he/she's wasting his/her time on you, or would have been wiser to assign the project to someone else.

What Do You Get Out Of It?

You too are giving up time from your other activities (including classwork!) to do this. So what do you get out of it?

Most important, you get research experience. This is exceptionally important if you are considering doing a Ph.D.

A good friend of mine in college was taken under the wing of a senior professor in a different department. She was a demanding taskmaster, and my friend ended up spending much more time working in her lab than he expected. But it changed his life. She insisted that he apply to grad school in her field, and she got him accepted to a top Ph.D. program. He became a professor and is now the chairman of a department at a highly respected school, where he enjoys doing research with his own undergraduates.

Even if you are not considering a Ph.D., you will learn a great deal from working closely with a professor. Often you may be working with the world's leading expert on a particular topic—that's the main criterion for tenure here. (So our tenured faculty have passed this bar at some point, and most of our untenured faculty are successfully building a case that they will do so.)

Students don't always realize how respected and innovative our faculty are within their own subfields, but that's why you chose to attend a highly-ranked research university. Your advisor may or may not be a great classroom teacher, but he/she has shown himself/herself to be extremely good at working with graduate students to produce papers that advance the field. What you'll learn from doing that is quite different from what you'll learn in the classroom.

What You Can Do to Succeed

Here's some basic advice targeted at new research students. There are also many webpages about how to be a "good grad student," which should also be useful to undergrads doing research.

Time Commitment

Time Management


Writing is a form of thinking, a form of memory, and a form of communication. You should keep well-organized notes of several kinds. It is often useful to date your entries in such files and to keep them under version control.

Working With Others

But I Don't Have a Project Yet!

Now that you've read this page, you understand more about how to ask a professor about research opportunities.

When to ask (not too early). Usually you'll need to have taken at least a 300- or 400-level course in the appropriate research area. If you don't know basic concepts and terms, then it is hard to even discuss the research problem. Don't expect the professor to teach you the basics in his/her office: that's what the course is for.

Who to ask. If you are doing extremely well in an upper-level course, then talk to the professor about whether he/she knows of any research opportunities in that area. It helps if the professor already has a high opinion of you from good interactions in class and through office hours. (You did go to office hours just to chat about ideas, right?) Even if he/she doesn't have anything for you, he/she may be able to hook you up with a colleague.

How to ask. Advice from Marie desJardins: "Ask the professor about his/her research. Professors love to talk about their research. But don't just sit there and nod. Listen carefully to what he/she's saying, think about it, and respond." He/She is trying to get a conversation going to assess where you can contribute meaningfully.

To help the professor decide where to start the conversation, be sure to show him/her your resume and your transcript. Also describe the kinds of problems you excel at. Special skills or a remarkable track record may give you a foot in the door. For example, although my main research area is NLP, occasionally I do have problems that don't require much NLP knowledge. Rather, I'm looking for someone who can develop a particular theorem or algorithm, or build a solid piece of system software, or design a beautiful user interface. So in this case, I might consider working with a great student who hasn't taken my NLP course.

How to ask early. If you're not ready to start research yet, it's certainly still okay to ask a professor (or a senior grad student) how you could prepare to do research in his/her area. This might involve taking courses or MOOCs, reading a textbook or papers, or building certain mathematical or programming skills.

When to ask (not too late). Timing is important. Research may not fit neatly into a semester. So approach the professor at least a year before you graduate. This gives you a couple of semesters plus summer and intersession. Hopefully, that's enough time for the professor to find an appropriate role for you and for you to get up to speed, define the problem and approach, do some initial work, refine the ideas, do some more work, fail, think hard, try again, succeed, write and submit a conference paper, revise the paper after acceptance, and present the paper at the conference. It's very common for a research project to take over a year even for a grad student who is doing research full-time!

I'll give the final word to Jorge Chan of PhD Comics:

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