Cold emailing professors is terrifying, especially when you’re starting off and don’t feel like you’ve got your foot in the door. Let’s take some of the fear out of it, so you can confidently get into the lab or research partnership you want.
For starters, don’t think for a second that you’re too young and inexperienced. How do you get more experienced? By doing things. If you’re a freshman, don’t let that stop you, either. Lots of your fellow HRA members started research as first-semester freshmen with little prior experience.
Now let’s say you’ve identified a lab to work in (perhaps using HRA’s labs database). You’ve got to start the conversation with the professor. My best advice would be to a) email earlier in the day, and b) structure your email like this:
My name is So-and-so Applejacks, and I’m interested in getting involved with your such-and-such research. I’m a first-year and <some nice qualification—Prez/Hunt Scholar, honors student, national merit, whatever> studying something-or-other. I believe I would be an asset to this work because of such-and-such courses or life experiences that make you knowledgeable about the topic or the research process in general.
Then in the next paragraph, show that you care about the person’s work in particular. Dig through his/her faculty page, so that you can write a sentence or two about what makes it interesting to you. Wrap that paragraph up with how working on such-and-such would help you toward such-and-such thing that you want: getting into grad/med school, further understanding the topic, or something else. But pick just one thing, or it stops sounding genuine.
I’d like to meet with you in person to discuss the possibility of working with you. I can come to your office (find it on his/her webpage) at your convenience. Are you available for a half-hour at either specific-time1 or specific-time2? (Ending it with a question leaves that hanging in his head.)
Then sign off however you normally would.
If you don’t hear in about three days, send a brief follow-up email that proposes some new times. It may or may not happen, so be prepared to hear the word ‘no’. Freshmen don’t always get into the lab they want to right away. That’s okay. If the professor says no, thank him/her for getting back to you and ask what you can do to prepare to do research in his/her area.
A couple of other great resources are these:
If you have any other questions, ask your fellow members and the HRA leadership. That’s what we’re here for.