How to Find a Summer Research Internship in Biology

A note to my regular readers: this post isn’t about parasites.  🙂  But you could find a parasite ecology internship using these methods.

I have accrued something like a gazillion hours worth of looking for and applying to summer undergraduate research internships in biology.  This post summarizes my experience.  I hope someone somewhere finds it useful.  If anyone has any good resources that I haven’t included here, please post them in the comments or email them to me so that I can add them.

Why should you apply for summer research internships?

If you want to go to graduate school and/or have a career in research, participating in summer research internships will be the best form of education that you get as an undergraduate.  Your classes will give you a very important foundation of scientific knowledge, but classes rarely teach you to think like a scientist.  You need to learn how to read scientific literature, come up with good scientific questions, design and conduct experiments that can answer your questions, and present your results.  Summer research internships will let you work on those skills full-time for 8-12 weeks.

In addition to being spectacular training, summer research internships can help you get the career opportunities that you want.  First, internships look good on your resume or curriculum vitae.  Going to graduate school with no prior research experience is really hard – you suddenly need to come up with a testable research question and a research plan for the next 2-7 years with no prior experience. (I’m not saying that you can’t do it.  I’m just saying that it’s hard.)  Because graduate advisors know how hard it is for students to successfully deal with that sudden pressure, they prefer to take on students with some prior research experience.  Second, summer research internships almost always involve working very closely with a research mentor, typically a science professor.  That mentor will probably get to know you over the course of the summer better than any of your other professors, and that means they will be able to write you a very detailed, personalized letter of recommendation.  A recommendation letter like that is invaluable for applications to grad school, jobs, fellowships, other internships, etc.

Finally, I will mention some other perks:  1)  IT’S FUN!  When you start looking for internships, you’ll see that you can get paid to go do some amazing things.  Travel internationally!  Travel nationally!  Play in the mud!  Catch bugs!  Work with billion dollar science equipment!  Or whatever else floats your boat.  2) As I’ll discuss below, not all summer internships pay you, and not all of the internships that pay you pay enough for you to pay your bills.  However, some internships will pay you very well – better than you’d get flipping burgers full time at minimum wage. 3) It sure beats flipping burgers flipping burgers full time at minimum wage.

When do you apply?

Typically, applications are due somewhere between January and April.  Obviously, this will vary among internship programs.  However, you should find and apply for internships well in advance of the deadlines.  This is especially important because many internship applications require letters of recommendation, and you want to give your letter writers plenty of advanced warning.  (Minimum of two weeks, but that’s pushing it.)

How many should you apply for?

As many as you can!  The first year that I applied for internships as an undergraduate, I applied for five different internships, and I was accepted for one.  The second year, I applied for ~40 internships and I was again accepted for just one.  (That one turned out to be my dream job, and it totally changed my career plans.)  This is anecdotal evidence, of course, but my point is that applying can be very hit or miss.  There is often stiff competition for the best internship opportunities, and mentors need to turn down good applications all the time.  If you can spread your eggs among many baskets, you should.  But don’t try to apply to so many that your applications end up being poor quality.

Types of internships:

I’m going to talk more about the different types of internships below when I tell you how to find good internships.  But in general, your best training for graduate school will be internships that center around doing an independent research project.  You typically find these in two flavors: big research programs and smaller, one-professor programs.  In bigger summer research programs, individual interns are mentored by different individual mentors and there is often a lot of interaction among students.  Summer research programs often include professional development seminars, social events, etc.  There are also internships where it is just one mentor who may have one or many interns.  (There may be professional development seminars, social events, etc. associated with those types of internships, too.)  The main point is to make sure you’d be conducting independent research.

Other internships tend to be more focused on helping out with research activities rather than having an independent project.  This is kind of a fuzzy line.  Helping with other peoples’ projects is a really great way to learn skills and build relationships, and you’ll probably do some helping out no matter what internship you get.  However, exclusively helping is suboptimal if you want a research career.  Some examples would be ‘research assistant’ positions where you help with data collection or enter data into spreadsheets.  These are often advertised as volunteer opportunities.  (Confusingly, not all ‘research assistant’ positions work like that.)  Another example is positions at zoos or other wildlife facilities where you mostly help with cleaning and feeding animals, but you don’t really do any science.  Obviously, those internship opportunities are great if you want to go into medicine or wildlife conservation, but they aren’t good research experiences.

Paid, Partially Paid, or Volunteer?

For many undergraduates, funding is the major barrier for participating in a summer research internship.  You need to get paid enough to pay rent, buy food and gas, and save up to pay for the next year’s tuition.  You might be thinking that no summer research internship is going to pay you enough for all that.  You might be surprised!  The going stipend rate for many NSF REU internships is ~$5000/10 weeks.  That’s probably better than you’ll get paid working full-time for any entry-level-type job for an entire summer (13-16 weeks).  NSF works really hard to make the stipends competitive with non-science summer positions so that students of low socioeconomic status can consider science internships as a feasible option.  I will say that if you’re used to working multiple jobs and getting >40 hours/week of work, you won’t be able to do that with an internship.  Most internships have a strict rule that you can’t take on a second job during your tenure.  But you might be able to mow grass or walk dogs or babysit before/after the internship in the remaining summer weeks to make some extra cash.

If you’re financially secure enough that getting paid isn’t particularly important to you, then you have even more internship options!  This especially opens up research assistant positions.  I frequently see advertisements (on ECOLOG, see below) for partially paid and volunteer positions looking for students who want to say, go to Madagascar and help  a graduate student or postdoc study primates.  These often provide housing and meals at the field site, but you have to pay for travel and there isn’t a stipend.

To travel or not to travel?

In my experience, another big barrier for undergraduates who want to participate in summer research internships is the travel component.  One part of that barrier is money.  Traveling to and from the location of the internship can be costly, and not everyone can afford to take on that cost.  However, many internships pay for the cost of travel – the best example being NSF REU’s (see below).

Travel also involves a whole suite of things that students might find difficult or impossible.  You have to leave your family and friends for months.  You might need to find temporary housing (i.e., a summer sublet) at the internship location.  Maybe you need to find that housing and a roommate without ever seeing the place or roommate in person (thank goodness for Craigslist).  You might need to pay rent for two places all summer, unless you manage to sublet the place you aren’t using while you’re gone (a whole extra headache).  If you have pets, you might not be able to take them with you.  If you’re a nontraditional undergraduate – married?  kids? – uprooting may not be an option, even for the summer.  The list goes on and on.

My advice to you is that if you can travel, you should.  If you can travel but you’d rather not because it’s scary, I’d urge you to try.  First, your internship options will increase dramatically if you aren’t limited to a single geographic area.  Second, meeting new people and trying new things is good for you.  This is probably the best time in your life for you to have some adventures.

For those of you who are thinking, “I love traveling!  Sign me up!”:  keep reading!  Though it was a struggle for me to handle the funding and pet-leaving, I had both national and international internships, and I know that you can, too.

How do you find internships?

Ok, so, finally, how do you find internships to apply to?  I’m going to give you a bunch of good resources, all of which have their strengths and weaknesses:

Your Home Institution:

Most institutions have some kind of summer internship program.  You might ask your academic advisor about this or google “summer biology internship at [your institution].”  Often, institutions have programs called SURF, for Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship.  You can find those by googling “[your institution] SURF” or something similar.

The NSF REU Website:

The National Science Foundation funds many internships around the United States.  These internships are all called Research Experience for Undergraduates, or REUs.  NSF keeps an online list of most of the REU programs that you can apply to.  They break down the options by discipline on this page, and if you click through to biology you can get the full biology listing.  On the former page there is also a search box, so that you can look for REUs by subject or state or university.  This NSF resource is not always up-to-date.  You might click through to a program that is no longer funded.  In that case, it typically has a note about how the program is not accepting applications this year.  Most pages give you information about potential faculty mentors, provide an application deadline, and explain how to apply.

ECOLOG:

ECOLOG is a listserv that is used to post job ads (among other things) that are of interest to ecologists.  You can sign up to receive emails from the listserv here.  This listserv will be your best friend both when you’re looking for summer internship positions and when you’re looking for grad school positions in ecology.  If you’re just joining ECOLOG now, you can look in the archives for REU posts that you might have missed recently.   Note: even if it is tempting, do not post to the listserv asking if anyone has an open position and wants to hire you.  Only use the listserv to look for postings. 

List from the Department of Biology at Columbia University:

Sometimes people put up amazing lists of internship opportunities on the web.  This is one of those lists.  It contains internships that provide you with independent research experience and those that are more volunteer or assistant-type positions.  Many of the links are out of date, but it’s still a great resource.

List from R.I.T.

This is another one of those awesome lists.  You can click through to the list for ecology, plant biology, and marine science.  The things updated for 2013 are highlighted with red 2013 labels.  Some of the other sites may still be active, too, so it’s worth clicking through to check if something seems particularly interesting.

Google:

If you are currently an undergraduate, you are probably very skilled at using The Google.  There are some very good internships just waiting to be found.  Try things like “summer biology internship 2014” and “paid biology internship 2014.”  This can be an especially good way to find international internships, because those don’t always show up in the above resources.  Be careful of scams!

How do you apply for internships?

One thing that I am not going to cover in this post is application tips, except to say that you should always look through the website of the faculty member that you’re interested in and try to read some of their papers, if you can.  Your academic advisor, a helpful professor or mentor, or someone at the career advising center at your university should be able to help you figure out how to write a resume or CV, how to write a cover letter, and how to get a copy of your transcripts.

Good luck!!

2 thoughts on “How to Find a Summer Research Internship in Biology

  1. wow… this is a nice post!!
    English is my second language but studied my undergraduate in US.. I didn’t even think about having an internship while I was in school because all my focuses were on passing classes.
    Since I am trying to apply graduate school in US.. except GRE scores, it would be nice to have experiences on resume but also for myself.,,, I have been struggling a lot but this post helped me a lot. Thank you ! 🙂

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