Getting Started in Research

Identifying a Mentor and Research of Interest 

  • Search for faculty research interests on Scholars@Duke. Type in a topic in the search engine. 
  • Look at department webpages for your areas of interest and check out the “People” tab to read more about the research activities and recent publications of Professors and Faculty in the department.  
  • STEM-interested students, search the Medical Center Faculty Database – it’s right here on campus and many undergraduates do research in basic science labs!  
  • Talk to your instructors (a great reason to visit office hours!), your College Advisor, the Director of Academic Engagement in your discipline of interest, or a department’s Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUS) for suggestions. 
  • You can often find DAEs and DUSes at the Majors Fair, which typically happens after Fall Break in October. 
  • Explore MUSER for projects advertised by faculty and apply to those that strike your interest. 
  • Explore past and present Bass Connections Team offerings and apply to those of interest. 
  • FLUNCH someone of interest 

Contacting Potential Mentors

Doing research in any department of interest is possible here at Duke, including Arts & Humanities, STEM, and Social Sciences.  Research as an undergraduate will look different depending on the discipline, and mentorship structures in different fields will vary.  In STEM departments, research groups are often larger, with undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and faculty working together in a lab-type setting.  In contrast, Arts, Humanities, and Social Science, research groups are smaller.  Therefore, how you approach possible mentors will be different.   

In the quantitative and natural science fields, cold-emailing professors that you have identified as doing research of interest is encouraged!  Potential mentors love hearing from students who are curious and enthusiastic about their work.   

You can use this template as a guide to write your individualized email – keep it short and to the point!  You may need to send emails to 6-10 different folks to find a someone that is available to serve as a mentor. Send the email from your @Duke email address.  

Dear [Dr., Professor.,],  

I’m currently a [First-Year, Sophomore, Junior, Senior] student at Duke, planning/majoring in X.  [Insert a sentence or two about why you are interested in engaging in research in a particular area – what motivates you to do research? Mention how this might help you attain a goal.] 

I’m reaching out to ask about opportunities to engage in research within your research group. [Insert something about their research in particular that is of interest to you.  Demonstrate that you have familiarized yourself with their work.] 

[Briefly mention any related coursework/previous experience that might be relevant (although not necessary)]. I have attached my resume and unofficial transcript.   

Please let me know if you would be willing to meet with me to discuss any potential research opportunities for an undergraduate in your research group. 

[Warm Regards, Thanks, Sincerely, etc] 

Your name  


Follow Up: 

  • Be persistent, but polite. Wait a week, and if you don't get a response, try following up.  If you still don’t get a response, it’s time to move on.   

In most Social Science, Arts, and Humanities fields, mentorship takes a bit more time to build a 1:1 relationship that isn’t usually part of a research group/team.  You can use some of the same strategies noted above to identify someone with whom you’d like to work, but cultivating a research-mentor relationship often requires a few more steps. Here are some suggestions to consider: 

  1. Make an appointment with a DAE to talk about your interests and compile a list of faculty to contact.   

  1. If you are not sure where your research interests reside, be on the lookout for public lectures or events that are being hosted by Duke faculty and/or departments and attend.  

  1. Frequently, research relationships emerge from coursework. Take particular advantage of FOCUS opportunities and other seminar classes.   

  1. Attend FIR or QuadEx Faculty Fellow hosted events to engage these living-learning resources and broaden your view about research beyond the classroom.  

  1. Visiting a professor’s office hours to talk more about a lecture or reading that strikes your interest is a great way to lay the foundation for possible research mentorship.   

  1. You can still “cold-email” faculty whose work interests you. As in the sample for Natural and Quantitative Sciences students given above, you want to show them that you’ve done some “homework” about their research, and email works well to make an initial inquiry about dropping in their office hours or setting up an appointment to talk.

NOTE: Unless you are approaching a faculty member whom you have seen post a project looking for students, it is unlikely that you will walk away from any initial conversation with a research position; however, let them know this is a goal of yours. They might know of other options within a department or have suggestions about alternative projects.   

After you have a meeting, or several, follow up with a DAE to reflect on what you have learned and strategize next steps.  


Mentors are very busy and might say “no” …. 

  • If temporary (no current funding, full roster of undergrads, etc), let them know if you will still be interested in the future and consider following up at a later time.  
  • Be polite and thank them – you are still building relationships (and a reputation) 

Mentors are very busy, but they just might say “yes”! 

  • Be polite and thank them 
  • Be prompt in your response and schedule a time to meet  
  • Be on time; Be yourself – avoid dressing too formally or too informally; Listen attentively 
  • Be ready to discuss your goals and interests 
  • Be ready to discuss your availability. i.e., when you can start, how long you can commit, how many hours per week, flexibility 
  • Make clear your intentions for the relationship. e.g., independent study leading to an honors thesis or work-study position (for more on this, see….X page) 
  • Ask to meet any other mentees that you might interact with and who can tell you about engaging with the mentor.  
  • Be ready to discuss the projects – read the website, published, papers and background info 
  • Be prepared to be offered a choice of projects – know enough to make a thoughtful decision. 
  • Ask about expectations – time? independence? who will be your ‘direct’ mentor? 
  • Follow up with an email thanking them for their time.