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Asking POI for fellowship help?


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I'm not sure if this topic has been covered before, but I was unable to find anything while searching on this forum. I am a current Master's student who will be finishing in December. I plan to apply for PhD programs for Fall 2014 and would also like to apply for several fellowships to 1) refine my research goals and 2) increase my chances of admission to desired programs.


My question for you all is this: is it considered strange or too forward to ask a POI for help in developing a research plan? I understand that most professors will be too busy to consider helping someone that is not even a part of their current research group yet, but would asking for their input come across as ambitious or presumptuous?

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I don't think it's strange, but maybe others have a different opinion. In Canada, when you apply to the Masters and Doctoral level fellowships (equivalent to the US' NSF fellowships), you need to submit a 1 page research proposal of a project that you could do for your MSc or PhD, but you are not bound to actually complete that project. You also have to list up to 3 schools and 3 professors that you could (but not bound to) take the fellowship at. When I applied for these fellowships, I sought out a potential professor who I would want to work with and explained that I was applying to the fellowship and asked if they had some time to meet with me (via Skype) to discuss a potential project I could work on. I confirmed that they are not under any obligation to actually hire me and that if I did get the fellowship and worked for them, it would save them a sizeable chunk of money. In both cases, I found someone who was willing to spend the 0.5 to 1 hour with me to help me flesh out a realistic research project. One prof even asked me to send them a draft so that they could make suggestions. I think writing up a real research project is much better than trying to make one up yourself. In workshops for these fellowships, one common thing that we are told is that often students will write projects that are too vaguely defined and/or too ambitious -- the profs are the ones with the experience to know what students can generally accomplish in the 2-5 years.

Also, your case might be different, since for me, the prof's time commitment for the research proposal is pretty small. And, you should definitely prepare ahead of time to discuss an interesting topic or ask good questions instead of just Skyping with them and saying "help! I don't know what to do!"

I think if you ask them in a way that does not assume anything and that you are properly prepared, then it shouldn't really hurt you, other than getting annoyed at you. If they are really too busy and got annoyed at your request, they would probably just ignore it and forget about you. But if you are not sure about that, then rising_star brings up a good point -- why not ask someone at your current school? I was not able to do that since my schools were small and my advisor was the only one working on the field I was applying to. But also, I wanted to take the opportunity to create a new contact with someone in the field that I had not talked to previously before.

Edited by TakeruK
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I did this. At the time, I had already been admitted to the program, but wasn't there yet and hadn't made any commitments to a lab or research group.


PI was super receptive and very helpful. We emailed a few times and talked once. I came into discussions with a project idea that basically followed up on the group's more recent papers. PI suggested a different project that tied in nicely with my background, and provided really good comments on the proposal draft.


As mentioned above, I think it is important that you come across as very prepared and not just asking them to do all the work for you. As long as you can do this and seem to stand a good chance of being admitted to the program, it is actually not a bad deal for the PI, as it makes it more likely that a strong student, possibly with their own funding, will come to the lab.

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