The spring semester is fast approaching and signaling that time of the year when applications to summer research fellowships open. These fellowships are a great way to experience full-time research without disturbances from academic courses, while still receiving financial support to fund the summer experience. They can play crucial roles in your career as a developing scientist.
As a winner of the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and the summer Howard Hughes Medical Institute Scholarship, I am going to give you some tips and advice for how to be successful at summer research fellowship applications. I’m going to refer to these fellowships as SURFs (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships) for the remainder of the article.
Even before considering your research experience, the most important factor is your academic record. Although you certainly do not need a 4.0 GPA, anything less than 3.0 will significantly hurt your chances. In general you will want to aim for at least 3.5 and above 3.8 for the most competitive SURFs. This is especially important for freshmen who are planning to apply for a SURF because freshmen will need to show their uncovered grades. So do not blow off the semester academics just because of covered grades!
After grades comes your research experience. The required depth of previous research experience will differ between programs. Some programs are aimed at those who have had significant experience (the Amgen Scholars program, for example). Others are aimed at those who have had little or no prior research experience (like the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates programs).
However it generally helps to have more research experience. Thus it is crucial to start as early as fall semester of your freshman year. Starting early has several important benefits outside of having more research experience at the time of your application. Firstly, it allows you to get to know your lab’s Principal Investigator (PI) better. This can lead to stronger letters of recommendation. Secondly, starting early gives you the time and flexibility to switch to a different lab if you find that the one you started out with does not fit with your interests.
What exactly constitutes significant research experience? I would not stress about having published. Although being published looks very nice, not having done so will not reflect badly on your application. It is more important that you spend enough time in the lab to get to know the principle investigator (PI) well enough for he or she to write you a beautiful recommendation letter and begin to take ownership of your work.
Ownership of the project can manifest itself in a combination of ways such as designing the experiment or doing a series of experiments and collecting the data independently. You need to show that you were intellectually engaged in the research and that you were not in the lab just to perform routine tasks. The evidence for your ownership will come from how you write the application as well as from your PI’s letter.
Lastly, many SURF applications will ask the same question: Why do you want to attend this [insert name of the SURF]? More difficult applications will even go further and ask you to write a research proposal. These types of questions are essentially there to make sure that you have carefully done your homework and thoroughly researched the strengths of each particular program.
To answer these types of questions you need to go through and look at the benefits of each program. How long is the program? Where is the program? What kinds of research areas can you get involved in? How will the program benefit you in the long run as a scientist? You will need to come up with a compelling intellectual reason to attend a particular SURF.
Perhaps you want to come work with Professor X in Y program because you would like to gain exposure to a methodology that Professor X developed and learning this particular methodology is relevant to your short-term and long-term interests. You need to explain what your interests are and how they fit in with a certain SURF program.
Have fun writing applications!