How to approach a potential honours supervisor


Lana Ly, PhD Candidate


How to approach a potential honours supervisor


With more than half the teaching year already over, it’s the season for many third-year undergraduate science students to consider options for honours. As a demonstrator/tutor for undergraduate classes, one of the most frequent questions I get asked is: how do I approach a lab head about being a potential supervisor? After receiving yet another email from a previous student that I taught, I thought I’d write up a blog post outlining how to do this. Most students tend to do thorough research into potential labs and have perused available honours information booklets and websites to obtain this information. Beth has also previously written a great post on things to consider when choosing a research lab.

Most students will likely end up with a shortlist of labs that they would like to do honours in… but have no idea how to contact or initiate contact with a lab head to organise a meeting about your intention to do honours in their lab – which is where I come in. So, here are my tips for how to approach a lab head about being a potential supervisor.

  • Always send an email

Even if you happen to catch a lab head after they give a lecture to ask them about honours, they will ask you to email them anyway because then they can schedule in a meeting into their calendars (they also probably have to run off to their next meeting after their lecture). Most supervisors tend to be very busy, so sending an email can allow them to organise a suitable time that works for both you and them for a face-to-face meeting.

  • Introduce yourself

When sending your email, start off with a sentence or two introducing yourself such as:

“My name is Lana, I’m a third-year Advanced Science student majoring in Molecular and Cell Biology and I’m currently seeking potential labs for my Honours year for commencement in T1 2020.”

This helps to break the ice and make your email seem more like a conversation rather than an abrupt please-consider-me-for-honours-next-year email. This also allows the lab head to see whether your degree/major would be appropriate for the project(s) in the lab.

  • Show them that you’ve done your research

This isn’t really necessary but just writing a couple of sentences about why you want to join their lab shows that you’ve put in the extra effort of reading into the lab’s research and/or paid attention during their lectures. Something simple like:

“I really enjoyed your lecture series on ________ that you gave in [this course].”

“I thoroughly enjoyed my time in your lab doing this research project and am interested in…”

“I read about your lab’s research in the Honours Information booklet/your lab’s website and found it very interesting and would like to know more.”

“The research in your lab aligns with my research interests.”

  • Ask about potentially doing your honours year in their lab

Make sure to ask whether it’s possible to arrange a face-to-face meeting to discuss potential projects and/or expectations for honours. I know a lot of students that I’ve taught are scared about the thought of doing honours in a proper research lab, so an initial face-to-face meeting where you can discuss projects, expectations in the lab, other work commitments etc can be very useful in ironing out those concerns.

  • Attach your latest academic transcript

Always include your most recent academic transcript as an attachment in the email. This will allow lab heads to see what subjects you have studied and determine which students are more suited to the lab if there are a lot of honours applicants. It also saves them from asking you in a follow-up email for your academic transcript and waiting for your reply.

  • Just send that email

Most students will tell me that they’re too scared to send that initial email because… hey, let’s face it, it’s scary talking to lab heads and thinking about them reading your email. My only advice is to just send that email. Lab heads are always looking for new students so they will always be setting up meetings and looking for the right students for their labs (which could be you!). If they haven’t responded to you in a week or two, try sending a follow up email (your email probably just got lost in their inbox somewhere). If a lab head tells you that all their honours students positions are filled or that they aren’t taking honours students, at least you will know and can move on in your search for a lab.

My last piece of advice is to send that email early on because lab heads will receive a lot emails from students all asking the same thing – can I please meet up with you to discuss options for honours projects? The sooner you send that email, the sooner that lab head can consider you as a candidate for honours the following year.


Good luck with the lab search and happy emailing!

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