Did your relatives ask invasive questions about your future plans this Thanksgiving? Maybe they did or maybe they didn’t, but Mary Clare Greenlees: Bwog’s Deputy Editor, resident Astrophysics major, and stress baker extraordinaire, is going to tell you how to snag that fun summer research internship all the cool kids are talking about. This is… Science 101.
Hello, my lovely STEM friends! Unfortunately, it’s time to start thinking about those internship applications as deadlines generally range from January 1st to around March. But, the earlier you get started the better (even though you, perhaps like me, will be scrambling at the last minute violently cursing your past self).
Why do research? What do I get out of it?
Great hypothetical question! If you have any plans of continuing your education into a graduate degree (especially a Ph.D.), grad schools are LOOKING FOR research experience on an application. Also, it lets you gain practical skills outside of the classroom and it can especially help with deciding what you want to do with your future. Maybe you will find something new you absolutely LOVE and want to continue with the rest of your life, maybe you will find out that laser physics is really not for you.
Now that you’ve decided you might want to do research over the summer! Let’s get some of the basics out of the way!
What experiences are out there?
Short answer: Literally so many!
Long answer: It really depends on what field you are in. Below, I’ll break down general categories of where to start searching. But, I highly recommend reaching out to upperclassmen you know to see where they had good experiences and if there are any places to avoid.
If you aren’t sure where to start, one of the larger programs to look into is the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) which are funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) at hundreds of universities and research institutions. REUs are geared towards students who are considering (or have decided) graduate school in their future. They have several categories (Astronomical Sciences, Biological Sciences, etc.) in which they are organized. All REU sites grant you a stipend, and a vast majority provide free housing and transportation to the site. However, as a note, you need to be a U.S. Citizen, U.S. National, or a Permanent Resident.
Other large programs to look at are the Department of Energy’s Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) program, which allows students to work at one of 17 DOE sites, the Center for Disease Control Internship Program, and NASA’s Internship Program. A majority of these programs do have citizenship requirements because a majority of these are government-funded. However, many universities have independent programs that non-U.S. citizens and permanent residents can apply to. Specific Google searches about your field of study and talking to professors is a great way to learn about research opportunities outside government-funded ones!
Another big option is staying at Barnard/Columbia. Barnard has a specific program for this called the Summer Research Institute (SRI). This is a great opportunity to stay on campus and conduct research (and get paid for it!). One of the steps is that you need to identify a research mentor in a lab at Barnard or Columbia and talk to them about the possibility of you working in their lab for the summer. Some research mentors have their own funding to cover your summer stipend, but you may receive money from your department instead. There’s a few extra logistics involved in SRI, but it’s overall a great way to spend your summer, you get to stay in NY, and you get research done with the possibility of continuing it during the academic year. Columbia has a few programs, like the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) in Biological Sciences and by applying to this program, you are also automatically considered for the AMGEN Scholars Program. Columbia’s Astronomy Department has this information about students who want to pursue research in terms of how to get research and who to reach out to. Most Columbia departments have internal funding, so I would recommend reaching out to your research/undergraduate coordinator if you have specific questions about research and how to get funding! Additionally, if you want to pursue engineering research, SEAS Summer Research listings will be released in early 2020 for the summer according to their website.
Planning our your Applications
There are many programs out there and you have the exciting task of narrowing down where you are going to apply. To be frank, if you are applying for nationally run programs (e.g. REU, SULI, CDC, NASA, etc.) you will likely need to apply to many since some programs have as many as 530 applicants for 8 spots (for those keeping track, that’s 1% acceptance rate). So, if you need to make a list of where to apply, how do you narrow the list down to something mildly manageable? My recommendation is to spreadsheet it out. And from there, decide what you would like to prioritize. For example, my spreadsheet has the following categories: Name, Location, Stipend, Housing?, Distance from Home, Length, Field of Study, Deadline, Notes, and Essay Topics. This can help you keep track of what you look for in a program, and if at any time you want to make cuts to your list you can easily do it! Use whatever categories you want, but I found this insanely helpful in managing what I need to apply to and what I need to get done.
Another important thing to take note of is the possible research topics that the program offers. This more specifically applies to the national programs, as for the majority of them you get placed by the program and have the opportunity to rank what research topics are interesting to you. If you know what your research interests are, then that makes this way easier! If you don’t though, just make sure that there are two to three possible topics you would be down to do. This is the perfect time to explore different facets of your field of study and hopefully, it will help you narrow down what your research interests are for the future.
If you are participating in research either at Barnard through SRI or at Columbia, you need to have a specific person in mind. For SRI, if you have no clue where to start, I recommend emailing/scheduling a meeting with your faculty SRI representative (can be found on the SRI link earlier in the article) to see if they have pointers of where to start your search. Before this, however, I would recommend doing your own research into the different research happening on campus to see if any projects seem up your alley. Admittedly, I am not as well versed in applying for research if you are CC, SEAS, or GS, I would still recommend emailing your department’s undergraduate coordinator in conjunction with doing your own research into faculty.
What Materials do you need?
Make sure to carefully look at the programs, as most of them tend to have program-specific applications, such as essays and short answers. Most have one long answer/essay that answers what your background is and what your research interests are and one that has you write why you applied for your program. Although some of the questions may be similar, make sure to edit them in regards to the program you’re applying to. If you’re applying to many, a route you can do is to write a base answer for each question and then tailor them to each application.
Almost all of these programs (besides doing research at BC/CU) require letters of recommendation from 2 to 3 professors or mentors. Here are two thorough Bwog articles about letters of recommendation that I would recommend reading if you have questions on who to ask, how to ask, and when to ask!
More likely than not, you will also need your college transcript readily available, usually they are fine with an unofficial copy (which you can download online), but check to make sure that they don’t need an official transcript (which can take a bit).
Having a resume/CV handy is not bad, some ask for it and others ask you to basically fill out the information.
Please make sure to check individual programs, because some have extra requirements, maybe more specific short answers, or might need you to get an extra letter of recommendation.
Please don’t push this off to the last minute! Will you probably do this? Yes! However, try and give your future self some breathing room and get things out of the way first. This especially applies to letters of recommendation since you should give as much time in advance as possible to let them write the best letter possible! It will all be fine in the end, and just try and think of a backup plan, whether it be going back to your old job at home and doing research on the side, or not doing anything. Whatever happens, happens, and you will be fine.
look at this cool observatory :) via Wikimedia Commons