Survival Guide for Applying to Off-Campus Summer Research Programs: Part 1

By Ariana Rojas, Peer Research AmbassadorSurvival Guide for Applying to Off-Campus Summer Research Programs. By PRA Ariana.

With every spring semester comes the dreaded time of the year – summer internship applications. This process may seem daunting for most, I know it is for me even as a Senior, but I’ve gotten through it, and so will you!

I spent the summer after my first year studying abroad through UConn in Italy, so I first started looking for summer research internships the spring semester of my sophomore year. I was new to the Storrs campus and did not have any research experience, and was looking to branch out that summer. After my weeks – to months – of working on applications and applying to programs, I was offered a spot in the University of North Florida Coastal Biology REU program. I was ecstatic and accepted my offer. I spent that summer researching the molecular mechanism of gut development in Tardigrades and had an incredible summer. I developed a fruitful mentor relationship, met some amazing undergraduate researchers from across the country (who I’m still best friends with to this day), explored Florida, and fell in love with developmental biology – all while getting paid. I highly recommend REU programs, or even any off-campus summer research program, to all undergraduates.

I have a success story from that year but figuring out the process of applying to summer research programs was difficult for me. All of the information can be overwhelming! I’m here to help demystify that process and help you get through it.

Know the Lingo

As you begin your search, you will notice different acronyms; I even mentioned one already. The different names usually just distinguish where the funding for the programs come from, but it’s important to familiarize yourself with some of the most popular. First, there are the REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) programs. These programs are funded by the NSF (National Science Foundation) and typically are run on college campuses around the country. The research topics cover STEM, social sciences, and humanities, so don’t skip over these. Second, there are the SURP (Summer Undergraduate Research Program) programs. These programs are run through the AAMC (American Association of Medical Colleges) and are great if you’re pre-med. As you continue your search, you’ll see other key words, like fellowship or internship. There really isn’t a difference between these, typically the work in a fellowship and internship will be the same. The most important things to look for while searching isn’t these key words, but more so the requirements for each program. A program can be labeled an undergraduate fellowship, but maybe only accepts rising seniors. Or maybe a program is labeled as a research fellowship, but they’re actually looking for graduate students. Make sure to check the requirements to avoid accidentally applying for programs you may not qualify for.

How to Find Programs

Before you start, think about what kind of research you want to get involved in. Do you want it to directly correlate to the research you’re working on now? Do you want to try something completely new? If you don’t have any research experience, think about what topics interest you the most. It’s easier to filter through programs if you have a general area you want to focus on, so make sure you’re figure that out first. Now that you know what kind of programs you’re looking for, it’s time to start your search.

The best place to start are databases linked off the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) website. There are databases for REU programs, the AAMC SURP programs, and many more. The databases are filled with so much information, but they can also be overwhelming for that same reason. I would suggest starting an excel sheet with the programs that interest you so you can look back at them later. Organization will be your friend throughout this search, so it’s best if you start early. Then, you can slowly start chipping away at your list of programs until you are finished applying. Another great place to start are your emails. The UConn Daily Digest or the department listserv emails contain great information that many people don’t look at! I personally found information on my REU program in a Biology department email and soon quickly learned about the world of REU programs. You can also look at government labs, like the NIH or CDC, if you’re interested in government research, or even private labs. The OUR website has compiled links on their page to get you started.

What to Look for in a Program

As you’re looking at programs there are many factors to consider. For me, the three most important are research area, location, and compensation. While looking for programs it’s easiest if you have a research area in mind. However, try not to limit yourself to programs that 100% fit all the criteria you wrote down beforehand. This doesn’t mean that you should apply to programs that don’t fit your areas of interest, but rather you should be open to new areas. These programs are a great opportunity to try something new and you never know, you may end up completely changing your research interests. Research isn’t narrow, and the intersection of different subjects, like developmental biology and evolutionary biology, are extremely common.

While looking for summer programs my first year, I was very focused on studying genetics, possibly with an environmental focus. So, when I was looking at the Coastal Biology REU program at UNF, I was already a little out of my realm. My first choice was a project working on genetics with an environmental focus, but I ended up getting accepted to my second-choice lab whose project focuses on evolution of development. I only applied to that project because I thought it might be interesting, but I never thought I would love evolutionary biology. My second-choice lab ended up being a perfect fit and I’m still working in the field of evolution of development to this day.

Another important factor to consider is location. You will need something to do on the weekends! You will learn a lot and work very hard in your lab during your time there, but it’s also important to have fun and discover the place you’re living for that time. Maybe you want to spend your weekends at the beach and in the sun, as I did, so maybe an opportunity in Florida or California may be a good fit. Maybe you want to spend the summer in the city, so a program in NYC or Boston would be a good fit. Maybe you want to be close to home, so an opportunity near your home state is important. These research programs are happening across the country, there are many to choose from.

The last factor is compensation. Many summer research internships are paid, but not all. If you need a paid opportunity, don’t fret because there are plenty to be found. Programs like REU’s are so popular because most will pay for your accommodation, food, and travel, all with a stipend on top. If they don’t pay for any of those things, will your stipend cover your living expenses in the location you’ll be living? Don’t think that just because you’re an undergraduate with no research experience you can’t get a paid research opportunity, because you can!

Next step – apply! Check out part 2 of this blog post for my advice on navigating the application process.

Ariana is a senior majoring in Molecular & Cell Biology with minors in Political Science and Environmental Studies. Click here to learn more about Ariana.