Talking to a Professor 101
Whenever I tell someone, whether it be a friend of mine, my family, or even a faculty member, that I am researching methamphetamine addiction in mice, one of the first questions I get asked is usually, “where do they get the meth from?” This question kind of bothers me. I rarely get asked specific questions about my research, and the opportunity to share the knowledge I have gained during my internship is frustratingly uncommon. To be quite honest, I don’t even have a good answer to this question. I understand that meth is a scary and almost alien substance to many people that I interact with, so the fascination with the drug itself is not unexpected. However, having the frustrating experience of people focusing on the wrong things when I am trying to convey interesting things to them has really opened my eyes to how to ask questions about research. I have begun to realize that asking research questions that can be answered with a single sentence reveal almost nothing in terms of how much other interesting information they can share. So, I have compiled a list of tips from my own experience that can help you ask deep and thought-provoking questions, as I believe that asking good questions is a major part of being a good researcher.
Step 0: Research the Research
Oftentimes, you will know beforehand if you are going to talk to a professor about their research. I have found that their websites and published article lists are often outdated; however, gathering any information you can about their area of expertise can be a tremendous help in asking great questions and getting interested in their research.
Step 1: Be confident
Professors can be quite intimidating. They are incredibly knowledgeable, experienced, and intelligent people, and meeting a professor whose work you admire can be quite daunting. I remember my first time meeting a professor one-on-one at UCSB, I was extremely nervous. I walked into his office, sweaty and totally unprepared. The first question he asked me was, “So do you have any questions for me?” It took me about fifteen seconds to stammer out my first words, and by the time we were done with the interview I thought I had completely blown it. I ended up being offered a position as a research assistant, and it made me realize that professors are people too. Professors do not always need to hear deep, thoughtful questions about their research, and they will understand that you will make mistakes. Just focus on showing your curiosity and personality, and the knowledge and critical questions will come later.
Step 2: Make connections
As a wise man once said, “Your network is your net worth.” Don’t be afraid to ask personal questions, and always remember to send a thank you email after you talk with a professor. Actions such as these will make them remember you, and there are countless opportunities out there that you will not find on your own. Having a good network of people can open many doors and help you achieve things you could never have done on your own. Beyond research, professors are amazing mentors and advice-givers, and having someone as knowledgeable as a professor to ask questions to can literally change your life.
Step 3: Have fun!
Getting a position in a research lab is never life or death. In fact, you probably won’t even really enjoy your first research experience. However, making mistakes and learning from them is a huge part of life in general, and research is no different. Don’t be afraid to try something scary! Email that professor, ask the “dumb” questions, and most of all, have fun. Ask interesting questions you want to know the answers to, and have a good time doing it, because your energy will be contagious!
Hopefully, this short guide will help you the next time you talk to a professor, and know that your research experience will teach you an incredible amount about yourself and what you enjoy. As a final piece of advice, try to make the most of every moment, because that is what life is all about.