It’s a new year and a new semester — and for those of us studying subjects that involve research, it’s time to start looking for summer research opportunities.
Research is a huge part of many majors, from STEM fields such as astrophysics and chemistry to humanities fields such as history and film. Whether you plan on going to graduate school or if you want to go directly into a specific industry after graduation, research experience often makes the difference between being selected and being turned down. Plus, the skills you gain doing research are almost always better training for the real world than what you learn in class.
So how do you go about finding research? The immediate option is to find research here on campus — but that can be tricky. Cold-emailing professors in your department is a good start, but it often results in no reply, as professors are just too busy.
In fact, getting research with professors on campus becomes much easier if you have some prior research under your belt — so summer internships are your best bet for getting your foot in the door, and for most of them, you need to apply early to be considered.
NSF research experience for undergraduates
If you are a STEM major, the largest (and best-funded) set of summer internships are those offered via the National Science Foundation, or NSF. Known as REUs — research experience for undergraduates — these programs are run out of universities as well as observatories, labs and other organizations. There are hundreds of opportunities, but luckily the NSF keeps an updated list of the internships being offered at this website.
There, you can see the broad range of research areas that have participating programs, including astronomy and physics; atmospheric, geospace and earth sciences; biological sciences; chemistry; computer and information science; engineering; cyberinfrastructure; department of defense; education and human resources; ethics and values studies; international science and engineering; materials research; mathematical sciences; ocean sciences and polar programs; small business innovation research; and social, behavioral and economic sciences.
The deadlines for most of these programs is in February, so you still have time to apply to many of them. As a note, though, many require at least one or two letters of recommendation — so get on your professors’ good sides, and be ready to hit some of them up for letters. Most professors are happy to help a student out who is attempting to get their first research gig.
The unifying factor of all of these programs is that they are funded by the NSF — that’s right, you get paid some big bucks to do your research. Many programs have stipends of about $5000-7000 for the summer, and many subsidize your housing as well, meaning that you get to keep the majority of what you earn.
All of this might sound a bit intimidating, but remember that the NSF encouraged schools and groups to make these programs to help students with little-to-no research experience obtain a high-quality research education. In your applications and personal statements, focusing on your core schoolwork and your enthusiasm for the subject is often enough to be accepted.
If you’d rather go through the university system, you can access study abroad opportunities that focus on research, as well as internships, here. Unfortunately, the site doesn’t let you filter by which programs are explicitly about research, but unlike the NSF programs, the majority of these take place in awesome locations around the globe. On the downside, most of these programs have tuition you have to pay, but some do come with stipends, so look out for those.
However you go about finding research, whether through an organization such as UC Berkeley or the NSF or simply by emailing professors, the summer is a fantastic time to see a new place, meet new people and learn valuable real-world skills.