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Navigating Your Undergraduate Research Internship

How to use a research internship to prepare for grad school.

April 21, 2015

Anjali Gopal is starting her PhD in the joint Bioengineering program at the University of California, Berkeley/University of California, San Francisco. You can follow her on Twitter @anjali_gopal

If you think you want to go to grad school, getting a research internship is the best way to learn more about what graduate life will be like. Research internships are a great opportunity to gain concentrated research experience, build relationships with leaders in your field of interest, and maybe even get some of your tuition fees covered. The graduate students you’ll work alongside will be your peers and mentors; you’ll be able to shadow their day-to-day tasks, and figure out if graduate school life is right for you.

If you haven’t already secured a summer research internship, it’s not too late to start. Many professors accept summer students well into the first and second weeks of May, so send out a few resumes if you have yet to land a position. For those of you who have already secured an internship: congratulations! Here are some tips to help you make the most out of yours.

Look at fields that interest you, not just ones related to your major

I did my undergraduate degree in Nanotechnology Engineering, and too many times, I’d see students who were intent on getting a nano-related research internship. Though having a connection between your major and your research area of interest may help you get the job, it won’t limit your research experiences once you’re actually in the group. I started working in a Bioinformatics group last summer as a research assistant. Though Bioinformatics is largely a computational field (which fits well with my engineering major), I’ve also been able to get some experience in wet lab work and cell cultures by asking my lab manager and postdocs for a few introductory projects. Being curious, having enthusiasm, and showing a great degree of initiative can go a long way in getting new and interesting research experiences.

Build rapport with your PI and your graduate students

Nurturing good relationships with your group is one of the best ways to build a successful career in research. Remember, if you do intend to go to graduate school some day, you’ll have to gather letters of reference—so it’s important to keep your relationship with your PI on excellent terms. Fortunately, this should not be too hard. A professor who has just hired you probably already likes you. You can keep this momentum going by doing simple things like:

  • showing curiosity about your field of interest (ask questions during group meetings, or privately afterwards)

  • keeping your PI up-to-date on your tasks (let them know if you’re on track, or if there are unexpected delays in your work)

  • ask them about their research experiences, and where they suggest you go for grad school

If you work in a large group and do not see your professor as much, do the same for your direct supervisor (it may be a lab manager or a senior graduate student). In these large groups, your PI will often depend on the advice or opinion of your supervisor for references. Remember, even the graduate student you’re working for will eventually have a career of his or her own. You want to keep your network broad and your relationships strong.

Look for learning opportunities outside of your immediate work

Most research groups will have group meetings, journal clubs, or be invited to seminar sessions. Take advantage of each of these to learn more about your field. Group meetings can seem intimidating at first, especially if you’re not sure what’s going on, but you can (and should) follow up about a project privately afterwards with the main researcher if you have additional questions. Seminar sessions and journal clubs are also a great way to find out what’s happening in the field outside of your immediate research group. Graduate students are diligent about staying up-to-date in this area, and you should get into the habit of doing it too. Being aware of other projects in your field will give you a broader understanding of what additional types of research you can be involved in; learning about alternate techniques and methods will add to your creativity and critical thinking.

Try to get your name on a paper

Publications aren’t mandatory for getting into graduate school (I didn’t have any when I applied, but was still admitted into several programs). However, publications can give you a leg up during the application process, especially if you get one in your third or fourth year. Most professors and graduate students know this. If one of the goals of your research internship is to get a paper, you should be open and honest with your PI when discussing initial projects with them. Ask them if you can contribute to any projects that are headed towards a publication, even if it’s a side project to your main research focus for that internship. You might not get a first or even second author publication (and it might not be very tactful to demand this) but you will at least have one to your name.

Most PIs might not expect very much from summer students, but an ambitious student can get a lot out of a research internship. Be curious, be open, and be motivated. If you treat your internship like a trial run, you’ll be much better prepared for what to expect in graduate school.

Has a summer research internship helped shape your research interests? Please share in the comments!

[Image via Wikimedia Commons; used under Creative Commons licensing]



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