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Tips for Meeting with a Potential Mentor

In contacting a potential mentor, you should be prepared to convince the mentor that you are right for a position in their group and determine if the opportunity is right for you.

The way in which you approach a potential mentor will have a great deal of impact on whether you end up being recommended by the mentor to join their lab. There are two key things you need to do in order to make a positive impression: (1) provide information about yourself, and (2) learn something about the research topic in advance of making first contact.

Providing information about yourself is relatively easy. Useful information includes class level, major, GPA, relevant courses taken, and any prior experience. If you have a resume available, this is very helpful. Learning something about the topic is a bit harder, but a little effort can go a long way. Take the time to browse through the mentor's website and look for any relevant publications authored by the mentor. Sometimes journal articles are posted directly on the website, or you can use the Web of Science library search to find articles on the topic written by the mentor.

Once you have collected the information about yourself and about the research topic, you are ready to contact the potential mentor. The best way to begin is by sending an email message introducing yourself and explaining why you are interested in the topic. This would also be an appropriate time to set up an appointment to meet or for a telephone interview to discuss the research opportunity. You might also request additional references or websites you can read prior to your appointment.

The first meeting with a potential mentor is very important, whether you do it in person (the best way), or by e-mail, phone, or video conferencing. Plan to spend some time with this step. Don't wait until the last minute to begin this process.

This is your opportunity to find out what the project will be, why it is important, and how you might approach it. It is also your chance to find out what it will be like to work in the research group. If you have not previously done research, the interview should help you form your expectations about what the mentor wants from you and what you want from the experience. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT! Your experience will be enhanced if you spend some time in this initial, vital step!!

And now, on to the first meeting.

We suggest you ask some--or all--of the following questions when you meet with a potential mentor. You will impress the mentor and help them think more deeply about your project. These questions are general guidelines; they are not a checklist. Ask all the questions you can think of! After you talk to your mentor, think about the discussion, and then go back and ask more questions.

Try to find out in detail what this project is. What is the science? What is expected? What led to this question? Ask for more articles or literature references about the project, especially articles by the mentor or members of the research group. Then read the articles and ask questions for clarification or further information.

What specific tasks are required to do this project? What course background or skills do you need to do it? What is the likelihood of completing this project in ten weeks? What equipment will you need to use? When will it be available to you? Will you work on this project? Or will you work on something different? Ask whether you are a strong candidate for this project. (If you are not, you may want to talk to other prospective mentors.)

Who will supervise you? Will you have a co-mentor, a grad student? Have they been informed you will work in the lab? How many other students have they supervised? How much supervision will they be willing to provide? Ask to meet the co-mentor (if it is not the faculty member or JPL staff member), and ask them the same questions. When your mentor/co-mentor is not available, who else can answer questions or help you?

What is it like to work in this laboratory? Are students welcome at group meetings? When are meetings? Seminars? Journal clubs? Could you start to attend group meetings now as your time permits? Will you get a chance to present your work to the group during the summer? Can you get a brief tour of the lab? When do people work?

Read, note, and inwardly digest the information you get as you ask these questions. Consider the mentor's responses--do they eagerly answer your questions? If they seem hurried or distracted, ask whether there would be a better time to discuss a possible project. When you have given thought to the project and your interview, go back and ask more questions about the project; dig more deeply into the science. After you think about your interview, consider whether you want to work with this person on this project for ten weeks. If the answer to that is "no," you may want to start the process with another potential mentor.

Interview guidelines were prepared by Carolyn Ash, Quondam Director, Student-Faculty Programs.