Finding a Research Mentor

Need help finding a research experience on campus?

This guide is meant to help you learn about the benefits of engaging in undergraduate research, the steps required, and the resources to find a research experience at UW–Madison.

Steps to Finding a Research Mentor

How to Identify Potential Research Mentors

  1. Decide on a research area (e.g molecular biology, materials science, nanotechnology, plasma physics, analytical chemistry, computer architecture, etc.). If you’re not sure what research area interests you, then start by doing a general review of faculty research in the academic department in which you are majoring. But, don’t be afraid to think broadly and explore research outside of your academic department, too!
  2. Do a search of campus websites (see below) to identify faculty working in your area of interest. Search through academic program listings, department web sites, student job sites, and undergraduate research databases if they are available.
  3. Talk to people. Talk to friends who are already doing research to get their advice about potential mentors. You may want to discuss this with your academic advisor or a professor or TA in one of your courses. Often they can give you ideas about faculty who are working within your area of interest.
  4. Read faculty research descriptions and generate a ranked list of potential mentors. Identify at least one thing about each person’s research that is interesting to you and that you would like to know more about.

Useful Web Pages

Your First Contact with Potential Mentors

Email is a good way to make initial contact with potential mentors—it gives the mentor a chance to review your materials before responding. It is like the first step in an interview, so be sure it reflects your best effort (no spelling or grammatical errors!). If you are comfortable, it is also OK to phone or stop by a potential mentor’s office to ask about a research experience.

Some things to consider when composing emails

  • Keep it short and to the point (approximately 1 paragraph). These are busy people.
  • Address the email using the mentor’s official title (e.g. Professor, Dr.)
  • Specifically refer to the mentor’s research, and what you find interesting about it. Use your own words and don’t copy text from the research description on their web site.
  • Be clear that you are looking for a research experience (vs. a dishwashing job) and what your main goal will be (e.g. shadowing someone in the lab to get exposed to research vs. doing an honors thesis research project).
  • Highlight what you have to offer; what distinguishes you from other students (e.g. hard worker, experienced, eagerness to learn, willingness to stay more than one semester, persistent, specific courses you’ve completed that are relevant to the research).
  • Show enthusiasm for learning how to do research!
  • Finally, request that if the mentor is not able to take an undergraduate researcher, that s/he recommend a colleague who might be able to.

Additional information you could include in an attached letter:

  • Give an estimate of the number of hours/credits you can be available to do research, and when you would like to begin, but leave room for negotiation..
  • Give a brief overview of your academic credentials (e.g. GPA and relevant courses taken), or attach an electronic transcript.
  • Provide your complete contact information (email, phone, mail).


  • It can be challenging to connect with faculty research mentors, so be persistent, yet polite. Ideally, give potential mentors a week to respond to your email before you follow up.
  • Research groups have limited space, so it may be difficult to find a group that is looking for, or willing to take, another student. Do not take it personally if they decline your request. You may go through all 10 (or more) potential mentors before you find a match. Stick with it! You will find someone.

Interviewing with Potential Mentors


  • Be on time.
  • Be yourself. But it will help if you come across as enthusiastic and motivated. Smile!
  • Be ready to discuss why you want to do research in general (What are your academic and career goals?), and why you want to do research with this mentor specifically (What is it about his/her research that is interesting to you? Is there a particular project on which you would like to work?).
  • Read about the research BEFORE you go to the interview. There is usually a research overview on the web with references/links to the group’s published papers. Try to read one or two of these papers, and prepare some questions about them. Generally, mentors won’t expect you to fully understand the research, but making the effort to learn about it on your own shows independence and motivation.
  • Ask about the expectations of undergraduate researchers in the group (time commitment, credits, type of work). In general, three to five hours of research per week is worth one academic credit. However, this varies and you should ask how many hours the mentor expects per week per credit.
  • Ask about who would be your direct mentor in the group (professor, post-doc, graduate student).
  • Bring a copy of your transcript if you haven’t already submitted one.

What Will Make a Potential Mentor Say Yes?

How research funding affects everything

Faculty have research opportunities for undergraduates because they have been successful in getting funding for their research. This affects the way faculty members do business, so it pays to understand it.

  • To get research funding, researchers write proposals to a funding agency (e.g. National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Agriculture) in which they present their case for funding.
  • Funders want to give money to scientists who have an important and interesting scientific problem and who demonstrate that they can carry the project out successfully and actually learn something important (despite the fact that not all hypotheses will pan out). There has to be a good research plan, and there has to be a history of success and getting science done (which is measured by the production of quality publications in peer-reviewed journals).
  • Research lasts longer than any single 2-5 year grant funding cycle because it just takes longer to understand things. If things go well with one project, new questions arise that become the basis of the next funding proposal. Renewals are crucial, and the success of future proposals depends on what happens now—there’s a lot riding on it.
  • If there’s no funding, it’s not just the faculty member who’s affected—it’s the whole research group. Research dollars support undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral scholars (people who have received their Ph.D. degrees and are getting more experience and broadening their backgrounds for application to jobs in academics and industry), and staff scientists (and their families).
  • When you do get funded, it’s not free money you can do whatever you want with. You’ve promised to do a specific project and you’ve submitted a budget that you have to stick to. Any funding carries restrictions, and the funder determines what you can and can’t do with the money they give you. If it’s federal government funding, there are whole books of rules and regulations that apply.

Put yourself in the shoes of a faculty member…

You have a research group with one or a few funded projects. You don’t have piles of “extra” money lying around, and you and the people in your lab are working as hard as you can to get as much good science done as possible because all your careers depend on it.

Now a bright young undergraduate approaches you and asks to join the lab. What that undergraduate is really saying is, “Will you and the students and staff in your lab, who are trained to do science and whose careers and even livelihood depend on the continued production of good science, take the time to teach me to do some science, too?” Seen from a faculty point of view, that can be a lot to ask, but there are several important reasons a faculty member might say yes:

The only way any of us got into science is because, at some point in our lives, someone said “yes” to us. Most faculty still remember that.

  • This IS a university, and part of the enterprise is to teach research skills.
  • Good undergraduate researchers are fun to have around. It is energizing to see their interest and excitement at things that others have long since taken for granted.
  • Very good undergraduates, with the right mentoring, become very valuable members of the research group.

What needs to be in place to get a yes?

  • There must be a group member with time to mentor.
  • There must be physical space available.
  • The faculty member has to see that it is likely that the undergraduate will “pay back” the research group, as well as the individual who spends time training them—by getting things done.
  • The undergrad must be able to learn to do some things and then do them carefully and reliably so that others in the group can trust the results.
  • The faculty member will look for students who are motivated and interested. A student shows motivation by knowing something about the research when they knock on the door and by displaying enthusiasm. If someone is not enthusiastic about getting in the door, they will probably not be enthusiastic about doing the work.
  • The student must have enough time to spend in the lab. As for “time to spend”, there are a couple of factors: the amount of time the student can commit per week and the number of semesters they are likely to be around. In both cases, the longer the better, as it becomes ever more likely that they will become a valuable, trained member of the group. The earlier in your undergraduate career that you join a group, the better, especially if you can spend a summer or two, which is absolutely terrific for providing the extended time periods necessary to learn the process of doing science.

Frequently Asked Questions

Email and interview process

You have looked up professors and there is one in particular that you would really like to work with. You sent out your first round of emails and have gotten a few responses back but none from the professor you were hoping to hear back from.  What do you do?

Follow up with the professor after a week has passed since your initial email. However, don’t follow up too frequently and give the professor a week or two to get back to you. In the meantime, respond to other professors who have emailed you back and see if you can meet with them. You may find out that you are just as interested in their labs as well. If none of the research labs that you meet with appeal to you, send out more initial emails to other professors you would like to work with.

You have emailed 10 professors and have gotten only one response.  The professor said that they do not currently have room in their research group for an undergraduate trainee. What do you do?

Respond to the professor and express gratitude for their time and response. You may also want to ask if the professor knows of any of their colleagues that are looking for student researchers in a related field. Finally, prepare to follow up with the other professors that have not replied and be prepared to assemble a list of more labs to reach out to.

A professor you emailed has asked you to come in for an interview.  The professor is explaining the responsibilities to you, which include washing dishes, making media, and making sure the lab is in prime condition.  You had expected a research position, but they are giving you daily lab responsibilities that do not include research.  What do you do?

These interviews are as much for you to figure out if the research lab is the right fit for you, as it is for them to see if you are the right fit for them! Ask the professor about the training for undergraduate researchers and if your role in the lab could ever progress into contributing to a research project. Some research labs will start undergraduate students doing basic laboratory tasks and eventually progress to training them in experiments or introducing them to a research project. However, while lab responsibilities are a part of being involved in research, they shouldn’t be your main contribution or focus if you know you want a more direct research involvement. There are hundreds of different research projects taking place at UW-Madison and numerous research groups that could be a better fit for your future goals. Don’t feel bad if you decide to turn down the professor’s offer for another opportunity!  

You have been offered a position in a research group, but the professor offers you a volunteer position instead of a paid research lab position that you wanted.  What do you do?

First, graciously thank the professor for offering you the volunteer position. If you know that what you are seeking is a paid position in a research lab, kindly turn them down and start contacting other research groups. If this research group is one of your top choices to work with and you wish to start a research experience ASAP, consider taking the volunteer opportunity. However, if you are working as an undergraduate researcher you should seek some form of compensation. Consult with the professor or your academic advisor if there are any research grants or scholarships you could apply for to eventually turn the volunteer position into a paid position. 

During an interview, the professor asks how many semesters you can commit to the project. You know you can only commit to one semester, but you think the professor wants someone for at least two.  What should you do?

When faced with this situation, honesty is the best policy. Let the professor know that you can only commit to one semester and how much time you can commit to during that semester. Depending on your reasons for a one-semester commitment, you could re-examine your availability to see if you could do two. If you know you can’t do more than one, telling them now makes you appear more favorable than reaching the end of the semester and saying that you actually can’t do two. There’s no guarantee that the professor won’t want you anyway. If they think you mesh well with their team and research group, they will accept you. Time is only one aspect of your interview.

You interview with two research groups and hear back right away that you are accepted into one of them. You would prefer to work in the research group that has not yet responded. What should you do?

Follow up with the research group that has not yet responded and re-express your interest in their projects. If you spoke with multiple members of the research team, mention them in the email and state that you enjoyed meeting with them. Reach out to the lab that has offered you a position and thank them for their offer. Explain that you are currently waiting to hear back from other researchers if they will offer you a position. However, if the research group you are most interested in doesn’t get back to your follow-up emails or decided to not offer you a position, consider taking the other research group up on their offer. You may find that their research group is the right fit for you!

You arrive at a research group for an interview, but find that the professor and research group environment is not what you expected and you are now unsure if you want to work there. You receive an offer from the same research group the next day, what should you do?

Reflect about what you are hoping to get out of an undergraduate experience and what kind of work environment you would benefit from. If you have concerns about the research group, talk through them with friends or family. If you know someone that is currently working in undergraduate research, ask them about their own experience and their expectations when entering your research group. At the end of the day, if what you want in a research experience doesn’t align with the research group, thank the professor for the offer but explain you are considering other options. Start reaching out to other research groups you are interested in working with and keep a list of what you want from an undergraduate experience in mind as you continue through this process.

Questions pertaining to undergraduates currently in research

Your mentor wants an experiment done this week, but you do not have the time to do it because of upcoming exams. What should you do

Discuss your concerns with your mentor and be honest about the need for more time to study. Offer to spend more time on your project once your exams are over. At one point your mentor was an undergraduate in your shoes, they might surprise you with how understanding they can be!

You have been working in a research group for a couple of months and have found to be uninterested in your research project. You are considering switching projects or research groups entirely, what should you do?

If you are uninterested in your research project after several months and cannot see yourself continuing in the research group’s research field, it is absolutely okay to switch projects or research groups entirely. If you still wish to continue in the same research group, ask to meet with your mentor and kindly voice your disinterest in your current research project. Inquire about other projects in the research group you could assist with and see if your mentor would be okay with you switching research focuses. If you are unable to switch research projects or do not feel interested in any of the research group’s projects, consider leaving the research group and finding a research position in another. This decision can seem very daunting, but if you feel that your time and energy could be better spent somewhere else, exploring other options is completely fine.

Your mentor asks you to write an abstract for an upcoming conference. You’ve been in the research group for several months now, but still do not understand the project very well. You are worried that if you attempt to write the abstract, your mentor will find out how little you understand. What do you do? 

Set up a meeting with your mentor and discuss your concerns on composing an abstract. Come prepared with an outline containing what you currently know about the research project to demonstrate where your knowledge ends. Ask if they have any scientific literature they would recommend that could make you better understand the fundamentals of the research project. Finally, ask if they would be willing to edit your abstract drafts and set up future meetings to do so.

Your friend has been working in their research group for almost a semester, but still has not been given a research project. They feel that they are ready to do some of their own research, but instead are starting to feel like this research opportunity is a waste of their and their mentor’s time. What would you advise your friend to do? 

Advise your friend to set up a meeting with their mentor and express their interest in pursuing their own research project and inquire about what criteria they may need to meet to begin their own. Their mentor might have an idea in mind already or might see a research project that can branch off their own. Before the meeting, advise your friend to also consider what project they are looking for in general and how it would fit into the context of the lab they work in. 

A student is extremely excited to have found a research position on campus. They arrived full of energy the first day and learned that they were “assigned” to a graduate student mentor by the PI of the research group, against the graduate student’s wishes to serve as a mentor. The graduate student acts distant, disinterested, and visibly annoyed every time the student comes to lab. What should the student do? 

Have a conversation with the grad student early on to see what they are willing to help with and what they aren’t, and how they would like to communicate, troubleshoot, etc. This will make it easier to think about what other sources of support the student will need if the grad student is unwilling to provide them. Also, see if there are others in the lab or neighboring labs or other resources that they can seek out to support their learning and act as additional mentors. You may be surprised where you find mentors in your life.

A classmate has an extremely busy semester juggling four courses (many with lab components), a part-time job, participation in two student organizations, and undergraduate research. They are devoting 10 hours per week to research and thought that this was a fair commitment. During their last meeting with their research mentor, however, the mentor was upset that they had not made more progress on their project. In fact, the mentor mentioned that they would not be able to write them a strong letter of recommendation for graduate school unless they started acting “more like a graduate student.” What should this classmate do?

First, reassure your classmate that they are doing the best they can do and give them some words of affirmation. Your classmate is currently an undergraduate student researcher, so the expectation to be “more like a graduate student” is unrealistic. If their mentor’s expectations are not aligning with their work availability, advise them to set up a meeting with their mentor and re-discuss their mentor-mentee expectations. Your classmate providing their mentor with their schedule may help the mentor realize how busy they are. Finally, advise the classmate to discuss their passion for research and graduate school with their mentor and see what can be done to receive a strong letter of recommendation. 

You have a big presentation coming up at a conference. You are struggling to prepare for the presentation and have reached out to your mentor multiple times for feedback. Your mentor is currently busy with their own presentation and have been slow to get back to you or unresponsive, what should you do?

Email a graduate student or other individual in the lab and ask if they could give you feedback on a practice run of your presentation. Copy your mentor on the email so they are aware of the practice presentation. Reach out to your mentor and give them a schedule of your availability in the next coming weeks. This will make it much easier for them to schedule a time to give you feedback on your presentation.

You made an error in an experiment today and felt that your mentor was disappointed in you. You are hoping for a great letter of recommendation from your mentor, as you are applying for a scholarship coming up and are now worried this failed experiment will jeopardize the quality of the letter. What should you do?

Making an error during an experiment is a part of the research learning process, so don’t be too hard on yourself! Reach out to your mentor and voice your disappointment in the failed experiment. Inquire what the next steps for the project should be and if you could re-do the experiment with their supervision. Take some steps to minimize the chance of another error, such as updating the protocol or reading more in-depth about how this experiment fits into the research project. Your mentor has most likely had their fair share of failed experiments and will understand your willingness to perform the experiment again.

This resource was developed by WISCIENCE Undergraduate Research Peer Leader Nicole Minerva and Research Mentor & Mentee Training Coordinator Liza Chang, Ph.D.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work, “Finding a Research Mentor” by  WISCIENCE  is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0.