As the semester draws to a close and exam season becomes less about preparation and more about survival, there is one question on the mind of every post-secondary student… how am I going to get summer research experience? At first the task may seem daunting. The main problem that most undergraduates face is that they don’t know where to start. There seems to be an endless stream of options from university job boards to department postings. There are even specialized internship programs that exist at other institutions (ex. local hospitals). However, once you scale the initial hurdle and start applying, what you will quickly realize is that even though applications keep going out, your inbox remains conspicuously empty. Is everyone just better qualified than you or is there a larger game afoot? What does it really take to get the coveted position that a million students wanted?
It’s all about connections.
Seriously, what looks like selection by merit is often just a diversion and the job will really be awarded to the individual who won the “who you know” game. A respectable GPA may get you noticed but at the end of the day a number will only get you so far; your relationships are what will really carry weight in a competitive application process. Therefore, the solution is simple but by no means easy.
Step 1: Decide what your area of interest is early in the academic year and then find professors or graduate students who are doing research on that subject.
Step 2: Find a way to make contact – and by that I mean face to face. Try taking their class or at least finding out when their office hours are and becoming a regular. Come prepared with intelligent and insightful questions, but always remember they are the experts so don’t try to show them up.
Step 3: When you feel comfortable, broach the topic of working for them over the summer. If necessary this can be done via email but be prepared to argue your case and convince them you would be an asset to their work.
Don’t expect to get paid.
Not only are most researchers strapped for cash but many are also very sensitive when it comes to money. If they think you aren’t there for the purely intellectual pursuit of furthering your own knowledge this could act as a strike against you. However, what you want is to get your foot in the door and volunteering is a great way to make this happen. People are not usually going to turn down extra help they don’t have to pay. If you can find some way to ensure your funding, for example through a government grant, that is even better.
It’s not just for science students.
When most people hear the word research they automatically think of scientists in lab coats creating various concoctions from bubbling beakers. Admittedly for anyone engaged in serious scientific study research experience, even if it involves just cleaning that glassware, is a must. Nevertheless, to be competitive in the humanities and social sciences, especially if you have your sights set on graduate school, research experience is also becoming very valuable. Though it may involve less time in the lab and more in the library there are skills to be learned in these fields as well that cannot be effectively taught in the classroom.
Don’t wait until an opening is posted.
Once a position makes it to the job board it becomes common knowledge – and that means that your chances of getting it are drastically reduced. Not only does everyone at your school in a relevant field now have a chance to apply, but if there are no restrictions, students from other schools will be interested as well. This is especially true if your school is in a densely populated metropolitan centre. Therefore, unless you are feeling incredibly lucky you need to utilize your connections to lock down the job you want before it goes public.
Don’t be afraid to explore options outside your major.
The subject you have chosen to study may be incredibly general or exceptionally specific. However, whatever your discipline it is probably interrelated with a dozen others that may also touch upon your interests. Therefore, it is paramount that you don’t limit yourself to doing research that is specific to your major. Venture outside of your comfort zone a little and the opportunities will only increase. The same way immunologists may gain worthwhile experience in a biochemistry lab, international relations students should not rule out research in political science.
By the time you’re reading this it may already be too late.
As someone who has been through this process (successfully I might add), I have learned a lot of lessons the hard way. The reality that you need to be contacting supervisors about potential summer research opportunities before leaving for Christmas break (January at the latest) was one of them. Whether you have strong connections or not, the best way to ensure that you will be assisting with research this summer is to be the first applicant. Professors are just like the rest of us and are often ready to settle for a sure thing rather than wait to see if something better comes along. If your email is one of the first read, your chances of getting hired just increased exponentially. If your inquiry comes trickling in at the end of second semester it is likely to not even be read.