There are two kinds of professors at UT. There are those who you ask for a position in their lab, and they tell you to take their course on whatever topic they’re teaching. If you do well in the course, or if the professor notices you, they’ll usually be willing to let you work with them. And then there are those who just give you a list of reading material and ask you to dive in right away. Pretty much every professor at UT is willing to give you a spot in their lab. All you have to do is ask. Send them an email, knock on their door during their office hours, or do whatever you feel is most appropriate. The important thing is that you do something.
This is the message (paraphrased) that I received from Dr. Calvin Lin when I asked him about research at UT. The question was, more specifically, how to get started with research. He said the most important thing any student can do—and generally one of the first things students avoid doing—is to reach out to a professor doing interesting work. Dr. Lin went on to emphasize that there are very few, if any, professors who are completely unwilling to give intelligent and motivated undergraduates a chance to do high-profile, intense research; it’s just that in many cases, it’s the students who don’t ask.
I wrote about the fear of the career fair a few weeks ago. The fear of the professor, especially the professor with the ten-page CV, is just as real and just as, if not more, present in the student body of the CS department at UT. The flip side of having such a distinguished faculty is that they are often incredibly intimidating to talk to, especially if you’re a first semester freshman or a new transfer. Many people stop short of knocking on a professor’s door for fear that the professor might turn them down, or worse, make them feel bad about asking in the first place.
Speaking as someone who has made the unfortunate mistake of misreading office hours and interrupting potential future mentors’ meetings (I once barged in on a few professors speaking with Dr. Porter), the fact is the worst you’ll find—even from the most high-profile of professors—is either a “send me an email and we’ll talk later” or a “take <insert graduate course here> and we’ll talk”. In fact, most of the time, I’ve usually found that the professors at UT are incredibly normal, kind people willing to take a few minutes to talk to any student—first-semester freshman or last-semester senior. More often than not, each of the meetings I’ve had with UT faculty have ended with me walking out of their offices with a stack of reading material on the subject of my interest.
What Dr. Lin was saying, and what I’ve learned, is that most professors, despite their pages and pages of high-profile awards and achievements, are almost always willing to give students a chance. There’s no harm in asking (as far as I know, no professor has ever given bad grades to students they’ve turned down for research), and the benefit is huge. So, if you’re into research, the next time you have a free moment, go to the CS faculty page, find a professor whose work you think is interesting, and send them an email. It doesn’t have to be long, or detailed. I find that “My name is Rohan Ramchand, and I am a computer science major at UT. I’m interested in doing research into <insert field here>, and I’d love to talk to you about working with you in the future.” more than suffices. (In fact, feel free to copy that.) I’ve always gotten a response, and regardless of what they say, it’s always better to ask.