How to get a summer research position
Summer research positions are a great way to show concrete evidence of your competence within your undergraduate education, as well as expand your overall learning experience. After speaking to Professor Paul Santerre and Professor Alison McGuigan, I’ve curated their advice to help you be successful in attaining your next research position!
The general mechanics of getting a summer placement is very similar to getting any other job. It begins with an initial contact, which is normally an email to the professor of interest. This is followed with interviews, and decision making. However, within this whole process, there are some subtle changes you can make for a more successful job-hunt.
The first step begins with homework. Any and every professor wants to know what interests you about their research, and this question can only be answered if you’ve read their articles. With this general awareness, you will be more able to compete against the rest of your class for the few placements available in each lab. Some professors will even test your ability to learn about a topic by making you write an impromptu article.
Professor Santerre mentions that searching for a good research position will involve “shopping around”. Set up a time to meet with each professor, and begin comparing what you’ve learned about them. The structure of labs differ drastically, and the objective is to find one which best facilitates your learning. Your professors are also shopping for a student ideal for the role they have in mind; while you are looking for a unique learning experience, they are seeking an enthusiastic and motivated researcher.
Expect a flexible summer schedule. Experiments can be unreliable, and aren’t as restrictive or structured as undergraduate laboratories. Be aware of professors who won’t be available to meet with you and support the progress of your research project. Gathering this type of information will involve talking to their graduate students, asking for a laboratory tour, and asking questions throughout the interview.
Lastly, showcase your curiosity and creativity in your interview; you need to be interested and possess investigative spirit in order to excel as a researcher. Remember that your professor is a human being, they can relate with your love for chemistry or fascination with technology; discussing these topics clearly helps your professor to bond and relate to you. Your ability to collaborate and add to discussion will be essential in the research community. Ultimately, a position like this is to help make yourself more competitive for future experiences.
Professor McGuigan advises the use of formal language (i.e. “Dear Professor …”) and eliminating slang or colloquial terms within the overall interaction. Students are discouraged from calling or visiting professors spontaneously, since it serves as an unwanted interruption; sending an email is the default method of making initial contact. Also, be wary of your own online presence, and public photos. Overall, professionalism is essential in building a first impression. That said, choose to dress casually and conservatively; this isn’t the setting for a suit, or any offensive or provocative clothing.
Any personal contacts that may be relevant (teaching assistants, upper-year peers, parents/relatives, etc.) are worth mentioning within the email. These contacts can also give you information about the general culture of the lab—this can be important for the logistics. As a summer student, the more effort you add into experience will result in much more value, and having a well-supported system is essential for a good learning opportunity.
Don’t be afraid to diversify your experiences. Ultimately, the objective is to find a research placement that gives you the best opportunity to learn about the research process. Your GPA serve as currency for getting scholarships, and help you get an interview. However, once you get an interview with the professor, the playing field is even. Your enthusiasm will be much more crucial for the research process than your GPA. Being authentic throughout this process is crucial for your success in your long-term goals. Once you get your interview, believe that you deserve the position (See: TED talk by Amy Cuddy about Power Posing), and justify that claim with detailed examples of your previous experience. This is a way to showcase your involvement and enthusiasm in your previous positions.