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How to secure a research position next summer

By Sergio Sharif, December 4 2021—

If you’re reading this, chances are you are thinking about doing research next summer. Whether it be for professional school, a graduate program or out of pure curiosity, undergraduate research provides not only practical experience but also a competitive advantage to those who pursue it. 

The first thing to keep in mind is that this is a highly competitive process, from start to finish. Every principal investigator or PI for short, will probably have many other students requesting that they get to  research with them. For context, the PI is usually a faculty member who oversees a large research project. These are the people you need to reach out to if you intend on working in their lab. Usually, these requests are made via email, around mid-to-late November. However, summer spots may be called for in one way or another and it is certainly possible that the PI you reach out to doesn’t have any room left in their lab.

The obvious solution to this is sending emails to many professors, as this will reasonably increase your chances. However, there are some important caveats to such an approach. For one, sending too many templated emails or even worse — a mass email to everyone in the department— will probably be of little benefit. PIs usually have an unreasonably large number of emails to read  and if you send a poor email, don’t expect them to even properly read it. For each email you send, take the time to make it as personal — and professional — as possible. Read some of their papers and if their work is too specialized to be understood, read their review articles. Once you have a good understanding of their research, ask yourself: could I do this for 16 weeks straight? If you can’t think of a genuine reason for working in the PI’s lab — don’t waste your time.

While it may be obvious to contact PIs within your faculty, there are likely many labs in other faculties with research interests that align with yours. Sometimes a Google search may suffice, but usually, the best approach is to systematically go through the directory of researchers in a department-of-interest and shortlist five to ten that catch your attention.

For a general structure on how your email should look, check out this guide from the University of Alberta. Remember to also include a resume and transcripts. As an aside, although a CV is the standard in most of academia, if you don’t have much academic experience there is little difference between a resume and CV. Once you have prepared a strong resume and assembled the email, do not procrastinate and send it soon after.

As you await responses, keep in mind that you won’t receive one from everyone you reach out to. That’s okay — and you should keep on trying. Remembering that not receiving a response is not to be taken personally.

Suppose you’ve sent out your emails and you get that much-desired affirmative response. Now you need to decide on a project which benefits the PI and hopefully you as well. If it doesn’t, seriously consider other options. Depending on the size of the lab and the nature of the research, you may be paired with a graduate student, who could act as a supervisor in addition to the PI. Otherwise, the PI may just need another hand on a project they have or perhaps they have data that has been lying around for a while and needs someone with time and skill to analyze — like you.

Once you have determined what you will be doing for the summer, you, in conjunction with your supervisor(s), will have to write something akin to a miniature grant proposal. The key here is to compose a proposal that is so simple any university student could understand it. Limit jargon and abbreviations, as this improves readability. It is also paramount to keep in mind that the reviewers are from different faculties. This proposal will be used as an application for funding both from internal and external organizations, which may be top-upped from the PIs’ grants. These applications typically have a deadline in early February. This is also a highly competitive process, with funding based on your proposal, the suitability of the PI-student match and of course, your GPA. If you are not able to obtain funding, there is always the possibility of getting course credit as an alternative.

These are some tips on how to secure a research position. A final crucial one — don’t leave anything to the last minute unless you want to reduce your chances of success.

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