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Should you have a project idea before contacting a mentor?

Postby rk7919 » Mon Jul 07, 2014 11:17 pm

I've read all of the science buddies articles on this, but I seem to be getting conflicting information. Some people say that it is difficult to find a mentor without a project idea/hypothesis in mind, but others say that it is difficult to find a project idea/hypothesis without a mentor because it's hard to have the in-depth information in the field necessary to come up with an original and informed project idea. Currently, I have neither, but I would like to contact some potential mentors to seek their help in determining a project idea. However, I have absolutely no idea what my project would be, or how I would go about finding a direction in which to narrow down a project idea. I would appreciate it if someone could help me. Thank you :)

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Re: Should you have a project idea before contacting a mento

Postby janet41 » Tue Jul 08, 2014 2:28 pm

I think the reason you get conflicting information is that there is no single recipe that has worked for everyone.

I would not advise you to go to professors and say, "I have no clue what I want to do, do you have any science fair project ideas handy?" However, that does not mean that you cannot seek advice from professionals. It is fine to say, "I am thinking about doing a science fair project related to your field." Then, make a small request: "Can you suggest a good survey paper to become up to speed with topic-x? Could I meet with you to discuss how topic-x relates to topic-y?" And, as you learn more, ask for more specific advice or an ongoing mentoring relationship.

There's probably a sweet spot between "clueless" and "got it down" -- if you are completely clueless, "I don't know whether I'm doing astronomy, microbiology, or maybe electrical engineering!", it sounds like you are asking the prof to do all the hard work of topic selection for you (and topic selection is hard work!). If you are completely set on a project, "All I need is access to a lab with a 2.31 Liter Gizmotron 7600 Model B!", then it's a yes-or-no question as to whether they have and would let you use their Gizmotron. (When it turns out, if you had chatted a bit more, and maybe modified your topic a bit, their 2.2 liter Fizzalator would have been even better.)

As far as topic selection goes, ask yourself: What is motivating you to do science fair? Do you have a favorite science class or favorite science area from previous years' fairs? Something that you wonder about or always wanted to build? What about your existing skill set? If your project is due in September, you probably shouldn't choose a field in which you have never read or studied in your life. You won't have time to get up to speed.

Have you tried browsing a site like sciencenews.org, newscientist.com, or livescience.com? Just start reading random articles and see what appeals to you. You can scan a lot of fields of science quickly on popular sites like those mentioned above until something grabs you, then do more detailed research from there. Google scholar is a good source for detailed research. With online database subscriptions, even a community college library might have access to more scientific journals than you expect.

You do need to learn enough so you can send a polite, considered, and interesting letter. You don't have to know every detail of your project from day one.

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