Navigating the Summer Research Experience: Part 1

By: Marisa Boch, OUR Peer Research Ambassador

REU, SURF, SURE, STAR, SMART, STaRS. Summer research programs are typically an assortment of acronyms with letters representing some combination of the words “summer” and “undergraduate” and “research,” along with the classification of the program (“experience,” “internship,” “fellowship,” “program”). No matter the name, each of these different programs represents a window of opportunities for aspiring undergraduate researchers. A summer research internship can be a way to begin your research endeavors, providing you with an avenue to continue research during the academic year. It can be a way to fully immerse yourself into full-time research, learning more and gaining more experience than may be possible when conducting research during the school year. Perhaps most importantly, it can provide insight into what role research may play in your future and whether a research career is for you.

Summer research experiences can be invaluable, but navigating the application process and starting off as a full-time student researcher can be daunting. In this 3-part blog, I talk about my tips for applying for summer research programs, from where to find opportunities to writing your personal statement, as well as what to expect from (and how to get the most out of) your research experience.

Step 1: Finding (and Narrowing Down) Opportunities

It was towards the middle of the first semester of my sophomore year that I realized I should start looking for internships for the following summer. At that point, I was flexible. I was open to the idea of pursuing an internship in industry, and I found myself applying for internship positions at every biotech/biopharmaceutical company in New England. I was also open to the idea of participating in a summer research experience and found myself applying to any program that offered opportunities for tissue engineering research. It was my understanding, unfortunately, that most engineering companies showed a preference towards upperclassmen (within reason, as I had only taken one core class within my major at that point), so I anticipated that my efforts in that realm may be futile. After a few weeks of unsuccessful engineering internship searching, I began devoting most of my efforts towards the research opportunities.

As someone who did not even know what an REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) was before my sophomore year, I turned to Google to help me with my program search. “Summer research opportunities for pre-meds” seemed to be an appropriate search phrase, and I was not disappointed. The top result, AAMC’s “Summer Undergraduate Research Programs” page, became my greatest resource ( Without exaggeration, I visited the website of every program listed on that page. Universities and hospitals across the country offer summer research programs for undergraduates, from Boston University to Case Western University to the University of Connecticut, and there are several databases out there like the AAMC website that can direct you towards these opportunities (visit the OUR website ( for a list of these databases).

It is easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of opportunities, but it is just as easy to screen through them to determine which programs you should actually consider. Here are some key details to take away from the program website to help you with your application process:

  1. Deadline: Some programs have earlier deadlines (mid-December – early January). Unless you are on top of your game and start searching in the beginning of the Fall semester, it is easy to miss this deadline. As someone who did not start looking for summer research opportunities until winter break, these programs were out of the running for me. But if you like the program, keep it in mind for the following year and start thinking about applying early!If you are just starting the search now, do not worry! The majority of programs have deadlines either in the end of January or in February, but some even have deadlines into the beginning of March. When deciding if a deadline is feasible, think about the entirety of the application process. As I will discuss below, you should be giving your recommenders a minimum of two weeks’ notice before the deadline, preferably at least a month. You may need to request an official transcript (which can take a week or two to be processed). And you will likely need to write an essay or a personal statement. My recommendation: Apply for programs that have deadlines at least 3 weeks out from when you start looking.
  2. Program Dates: Programs typically run for 8-10 weeks, and many require you to complete the weeks consecutively. If you are taking summer classes, have a family vacation planned, etc., try to look for programs whose dates you can attend without conflict. I would not completely rule out a program just because you have a conflict within the date range, but know that, if accepted, you would likely need to reach out to the program to obtain permission to make your schedule more flexible.
  3. Research Topics: If there is an area of research that you are passionate about, that is an easy way to screen through opportunities. For me, I knew I wanted to do research in tissue engineering. When I went to the program websites, I would look at the participating research departments to see if there would be an opportunity to conduct research in that area. It works to your advantage for you to be applying to a program that offers research in your area of interest, as you can tailor your personal statement to demonstrate that the program to which you are applying could fulfill your research goals.
  4. Eligibility: Some programs have different selection criteria. They may require previous research experience or coursework. They typically are specific to a certain career path (e.g., people pursuing careers in the biological sciences). And some are specific to underrepresented groups in research. Make sure that you are applying to programs for which you are eligible!
  5. Miscellaneous ($$$, location, etc.): Check to see if the program offers a stipend for housing and traveling expenses (most do!). Also make sure that you are comfortable with the location of the internship, since you will be living (or commuting) there for the duration of the experience.

There is no magic number of programs that you should apply to (I ultimately applied to 5 or 6). But use these 5 screening steps to narrow down your list, and then apply to as many as you have time to complete. Once you have chosen your top programs, you are ready to begin the application process.

Check out the next steps outlined in this special 3-part blog:

Marisa Boch is a senior double majoring in Chemical Engineering and Molecular & Cell Biology. Click here to learn more about Marisa.