This is a guest post by Mohammad Arfeen from Pre-Med Hell where he writes tips for succeeding as a pre-med student. We weren’t planning on covering summer research internships since that’s outside our expertises, but he offered to pitch in. In this post he writes about finding a summer research internship in the sciences.

What is a Summer Research Internship?

Summer research internships tend to go by many names such as SURF (summer undergraduate research fellowship), REU (research experience for undergrads), summer research fellowships, student summer research and many more names. Some of these programs are funded by various agencies like the NIH, NSF, HHMI, and others, while others are funded by individual universities. The majority of these programs are very similar in that, they tend to focus on hard science research, last approximately 10 weeks, you are required to work full time in research for those 10 weeks, and they are usually attached with a $3200-$5000 stipend. Some programs include housing, while others require you to find your own. Most applications are due by the middle of February to the first week of March, I have seen the occasional program with a application deadline in April, but I would apply early.

How to Apply?

There are many different schools of thought on the application process, some people seem to think that the application is a mere formality, while others think of it as a necessity. I think that it is a mix of both, if you apply to larger program that is funded via a major grant, the application is what will make or break you, if you are applying to a smaller privately funded program there are ways to get into summer research in which the application is just a formality.

As I mentioned earlier, most application deadlines are in February and March, and most applications are released in the winter of the preceding year. I would highly suggest that you apply as early as you possibly can, some programs at higher end institutions can get very competitive and don’t feel bad if you don’t get in. Apply to more than one program, you can always turn one down, but it is better to have a research spot than to not have one.

Most applications are fairly standard, your transcript is requested, 1-2 letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and previous lab experience is required. As far as the letters of recommendation are concerned I would get them both from science professors you have hand, and make sure you had a lab with one of the professors. You want the letter to vouch for your ability in the lab and your skills in picking up techniques. You will also want to mention labs that you have completed and techniques that you are familiar with. Many programs will require you to be an American citizen, since many are federally funded. Many of the larger programs (i.e. Yale, Harvard) generally tend to accept more minorities, if you are a minority there are many programs that are just for minorities that you should consider applying to.

Some programs like to select sophomores because they can get at least 2 summers of continuous research with them. Sophomores at my school are selected pretty heavily, as are those for whom research is a graduation requirement. Many schools tend to select students from within the school. The exception to this is REU’s. REU’s were created for away students, hence your chance of getting accepted to a home REU is fairly low.

You want to contact your first choice professor before you apply, and introduce yourself and show your interest in their research. Often they will offer you the spot. It is here where people say that the application is a formality: if you have been clearly offered the spot by a professor and you apply for that spot, you will almost always get it. Why? The applications for each spot are usually forwarded to that professor who decides if they want to accept a candidate or not. If they know you they will obviously accept you over another candidate they do not know. But in larger more competitive programs this is often not the case.

The general rule for applying is to contact the professor in advance and show interest. Often a less qualified candidate will be accepted over you simply because they took the initiative to contact the professor and show their interest.

What do you do?

The scope of what you do, depends a lot on your previous lab experience, the other people on the project, and the PI or principle investigator. If you have previous lab experience in the field, and show talent you will obviously be allowed to do more hands on work, than some one that is new. The reasons behind it are simple, in a lab, mistakes are often expensive, and more importantly time consuming, many labs are on very tight schedules. If you are in a lab with many graduate students and post-docs, chances are you will be doing a lot more of the grunt work, like washing glass wear, or basic simple lab prep work, because the graduate students and post-docs will be doing a lot of the hands on research. Likewise if you are in a lab with very few graduate students and post-docs, chances are you will have a lot more contact with the PI and do a lot more hands on research.

Often many of the larger programs have a lot of interesting research, but they also have a lot of people fighting for the PI’s attention and time. So you will be at the bottom of the food chain. In some of the smaller programs often it is just you and the PI, working together. Either way it is a great learning experience. Often you are required to submit a report of your work at the end of the summer to your mentor, and present at a conference or student symposium. These are great opportunities to build your public speaking, research writing, and networking skills.

Why Summer Research?

There are many reasons to do summer research you are given an invaluable opportunity to learn material that you wouldn’t normally learn as an undergraduate. You get a chance to develop a great relationship with a professor, which proves invaluable for letters of recommendation and graduate school applications. You also get a chance to tread the water, and decide what you like, not to mention a great item for your resume and a possible publication. The most important thing I think you gain is real life experience in a lab environment. This is considerably different from your “labs”; you get to witness lab politics and see the dynamic of a real lab.

You also get a great chance to improve your lab skills, and gain experience solving problems you otherwise wouldn’t see. Your mindset tends to change a little bit after working in a lab. Also you get a huge confidence boost after finishing your first project, it feels great to see your name on a paper. Research in the summer is great because you get a chance to work for 10 weeks, full time on a project. Either you will love it or hate it, but it is a great way to decide if you want to work in a lab for the rest of your life.

Resources

R.I.T Biology & Biotechnology Paid Co-op/ Internships: This is a great list of almost every program in the United States, and they are separated by categories, such as pre-med, minority, high school, non citizen, first years, and many more. This is a great place to start looking.

NSF REU website: This is the official website for the NSF REU program, it has the application guide, faculty, and list of sites.

NIH Summer Internship Program in Biomedical Research: This website contains a ton of information as well as the application for the NIH SIP program. (the deadline is March 1st)

You can also check professional organizations in your field, as well as the science departments at your local universities. Also you can check out your closest national lab website (i.e. Argonne and Fermi).

Good luck with your applications, and make sure to post your suggestions and success stories in the comments below.