From Summer Research Participant to Graduate School Contender
By C. Gita Bosch, PhD
“Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal. My strength lies solely in my tenacity.” - Louis Pasteur
Why should I participate in a summer program?
Research experiences, especially summer research experiences, are not optional if you want to go to graduate school, because highly competitive applications to graduate school will always include summer research experiences. In addition to learning how to conduct research, a sustained period of full-time research allows you to see the ups and downs of research, and teaches you how to cope with the failures and to celebrate the successes of your experiments and projects. When you participate in a summer program away from your home institution, you are exposed to new topics, new techniques, and new equipment. You can integrate knowledge from the classroom with the practical experience in the laboratory and vice versa, bringing knowledge from the practical experience to help you more easily comprehend and assimilate your classroom teachings. During research experiences, you learn to think critically and analytically as you read about the research projects, design experiments, and analyze your data.
You are also exposed to people from different cultures and different perspectives, and you gain confidence that comes from success in a new and unfamiliar setting. In other words, summer research programs can give you the confidence to become a graduate student and subsequently, an excellent and successful scientist. It is important to recognize that summer research is not necessarily about the project itself, but rather about the experience of conducting scientific research and being part of a research team.
You may be asking yourself, how can I include summer research when I need to earn money during the summer to help pay for college? This should not be an obstacle, just look for those programs that provide a stipend as well as housing for the summer. The top summer programs, which can be found in the top graduate schools, offer such summer fellowships. Organizations including the NIH and HHMI also offer summer programs with fellowships. Many institutions have summer programs that focus on underrepresented/underserved students. Before you accept an offer to participate in a summer program, be sure to ask them about expenses that you can expect to have to pay from your stipend. And very importantly, ask them about transportation costs (such as airfare), because some programs may pay for round-trip travel to come to the program at the beginning and then to return home at the completion of the program.
An even tougher question you may be asking is how can I add research during the academic year when I can barely keep up with my required coursework? One essential key is planning. As discussed in a SACNAS News article on Individual Development Plans,setting goals with timelines can help you plan, schedule, and stay focused on your goals. It is also important to maintain a positive and optimistic outlook to help you remain motivated. A great motivator to help you persist is to regularly review your accomplishments and give yourself credit for them. In other words, use your past successes to motivate you to keep moving forward. For example, you persevered in your education thus far and are now at the stage where you can realistically think about furthering your education and pursuing a career in the STEM fields. This tells you that you have the passion, commitment, and potential to reach your goals. And by following the strategies set forth in the piece on IDP’s, you will feel less overwhelmed as you break down your goals and strategies into small time chunks.
But how do I get into one of the top summer programs?
Sometimes it can be difficult to get accepted into the top summer programs if you have no prior research experience, so it is advisable to get some experience at your home institution as early as possible. During your freshman year or as soon as you begin to think that you may want to go to graduate school, you should approach faculty to get into their laboratory during the academic year. You do not need to be absolutely certain that you want to go to graduate school to get involved in research because the skills you will learn in the laboratory will be invaluable regardless of your next career steps. You should not be afraid or shy about reaching out to your academic advisors for help in identifying potential laboratories and to ask for advice about juggling the many things on your plate. They can also advise you about funded programs, such as NIH’s MARC, RISE, and so on, in your home institution that provide financial help with a stipend during the academic year. Another excellent source of advice is your peers, particularly more senior students who have followed such a path before you. And of course, the Annual SACNAS National Conference where you can meet and talk with hundreds of institutions that offer summer research opportunities is another great source of information.
You should then apply to other institutions for the subsequent summers. In addition to the research experience you will gain, your summer mentor will serve as an important recommendation on your graduate school application. It is important to identify and apply to several summer programs for each summer during your undergraduate years. Similarly, when you investigate graduate schools, you will look at institutions that are excellent in your areas of interest; however, keep in mind that the scientific and mentoring experience is more important than the project itself for your summer experience. The process of applying to and selecting a summer program will give you a sneak peek at the application process for graduate school. You should apply to programs in schools that you may be considering for graduate school because you will get an insider’s look at those institutions, and this will help when you make your list of graduate schools to apply to. You will also learn about the city where the school is located to determine if you want to live there during your tenure as a graduate student. You should speak with your faculty advisors and other students who completed summer programs about where they went and their experiences to help you decide which summer programs to apply for.
How do I excel in the summer program?
Getting into and participating in a summer program is not sufficient to help you get into an excellent graduate program: you must excel in the summer program. As mentioned above, the letter of recommendation from the summer mentor is very important for a competitive graduate school application. So how do you excel in a summer program? The key is to become intellectually and technically immersed in the project you are working on. It is important that you learn to rise to the challenge of new research and techniques and not allow the project to overwhelm you. Self-learning is a core competency that you should learn to master. You should do a lot of background reading about the project and the research. You need to understand the key questions of the project, understand what is going on and why the laboratory is moving in a particular direction with the project, as opposed to following a different direction. But you should remember you are not alone in this; you can ask the mentor, graduate students, postdocs, and technicians in the laboratory about what you should read and then ask questions about those things you do not understand. Usually one person in the laboratory will have been assigned to supervise you, so it is good to develop a strong mentoring relationship with that individual. But be careful about being too needy (this is where self-learning becomes useful), that person has his or her own work to do in addition to supervising your work. They will expect you to ask a lot of questions at the beginning of the summer, but you should be working toward independence on your learning and project as the summer progresses. If you run into a problem in your experiment, try to figure it out yourself before you ask for advice about how to proceed. You want to show your supervisor you can think critically about the problem you encounter––and are going to them for confirmation and further discussion. Make sure you attend and participate in the laboratory meetings. Be prepared for the meetings so your mentor can see your commitment to the project and your intellectual growth as the summer progresses. The message you want to send is that you are dedicated, love science and the discovery in research, get along well with others in the laboratory, and that you are a hard worker.
How do you optimize your summer opportunity?
It can be very tempting to want to use the summer program as a little vacation, especially if you are in a new or big city with a lot of things to do and places to see. You must resist the temptation to plan too many social activities; the primary reason you are there is to participate in the summer program, not vacation! Summer programs are not nine-to-five jobs, they are a commitment to the laboratory and you are expected to fulfill that commitment. A 10-week summer program is not a long time, so you must plan to make the most of your time in that laboratory, institution, and city. Make sure you meet and talk with faculty in all the areas of research that you may be interested in. And you should definitely make sure you meet and talk with the program leaders. Also visit other schools nearby and talk with the faculty and program leaders in those schools. This does not mean that you should not take advantage of the social offerings of the city while you are there; however, you must be able to manage your activities so that you do not neglect your obligations to the laboratory/program. Time management is an essential competency to develop. Be sure to take advantage of all the offerings of the program and institution, such as seminars, workshops for professional development skills, organized social activities, and so on. You are there to develop your scientific knowledge, gain insight into the research process, and mature your scientific communication skills. This is also an invaluable opportunity to expand your network of professional and personal colleagues.
What you achieve in an undergraduate summer research experience
- Hands-on research on cutting-edge projects in which you can become intellectually immersed
- Problem-solving and critical analysis skills
- A look into the life of a graduate student
- Scientific confidence and maturity
- Knowledge and skills on how to be a scientist (experimental design and techniques, data analysis, record-keeping, etc.)
- Networking opportunities
- Interactions with graduate students and other undergraduate students at the institution
- Interactions with faculty who are scientific leaders in their fields
- Interactions with people from diverse backgrounds
- Faculty who will provide your letters of recommendation for graduate schools and fellowships applications
- Opportunities to learn to work in teams and conduct team science and collaborations
- Opportunities to learn about the institution (and other nearby institutions) and the city
- Opportunities to learn how to present your research (poster and talks)
- Professional competencies workshops, such as time management, GRE preparation, and so on.
- Summer fellowship (usually stipend and housing)
Dr. C. Gita Bosch has twenty years academic leadership experience and seven years biomedical research. She is the Associate Dean of Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement at Jefferson Medical College, Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Dr. Bosch is deeply committed to increasing diversity in the STEM workforce; for almost twenty years, she has been working with organizations such as ABRCMS (formerly NMRS), SACNAS, and MHPF. She currently serves on External Advisory Committees for PREP, MARC, and RISE Programs.
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