Doing Summer Research to Boost Your Ph.D. Application

Posted by Sandra Jones on 1/20/16 3:52 PM

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scene from Moonrise Kingdom

If you’re interested in applying to Ph.D. programs, you should most definitely plan to do summer research. Even if you’re involved in research at your home institution during the academic year, use the summer as an opportunity to explore a new topic, work in a different lab environment, or learn a new technique. Summer research programs exist across all fields of research from the humanities to the life sciences ranging from 8 – 12 weeks. Here are 5 reasons why you should take advantage of them.

It makes you a more competitive Ph.D. applicant.

Graduate schools are looking for students who have the potential to become leading researchers in a particular field. Doing a summer of research shows the selection committee that you’re highly motivated and have experience in approaching a research question. Summer programs match you with a faculty mentor based on your research interests, giving you a better idea of the research you would like to pursue in graduate school. This makes writing the research statement on applications more manageable. I was an undergrad at a liberal arts college and did research in an undergraduate organic chemistry lab, but used my summers to get exposed to research at major universities.

I did two summer research programs; the first at Northwestern University called Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP), which included students from all fields of research from humanities to life sciences and another at MIT called MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP). SROP paired me with a lab where I worked on Huntington’s disease in cell cultures and MSRP paired me with a lab where I did a genetic screen in yeast. The diverse range of experiences boosted my graduate application by allowing me to write a creative and compelling research proposal that emphasized the broader impact in science. 

You’ll form networks that will follow you throughout your career

The faculty mentors and program directors you meet are an invaluable resource. Not only will you use them as references for applying to graduate school but most likely throughout your career for advice and as possible collaborators. Most programs also organize networking events for you to meet other faculty and graduate students to get a feel for the institution. Becoming a part of a community of researchers and exchanging research experiences is vital to developing intellectually. The other students in your program will also become your colleagues who you can reach out to for support, share experiences, and connect you with opportunities.

They prepare you for grad school.  

Not only do they prepare you for the type of research you will be conducting but many of these programs also organize faculty seminars, professional development, and free GRE prep workshops. Both of my summer research programs organized faculty seminars and journal clubs where students were able to engage in conversations about science and graduate school. At Northwestern there were free GRE prep workshops and they waived our application fees. Each program offers different components, but they are all geared toward helping you become a successful graduate student. A good idea would be to look into a summer program at an institution that you’re interested in attending to get a feel for the university and the type of research being done. This can help you narrow down your choices.

They are well-funded.   

Students get stipends for these research programs that range anywhere from $3000 – $6000 and usually include round trip travel and on-campus housing. Some programs like the one I was a part of at Northwestern give you a meal card that can be spent on campus. The stipend allows you to explore in your downtime, so you’ll also get a better idea of what the city has to offer and whether you would enjoy living there for graduate school.

You’ll have fun!

These programs require you spend a lot of time in the lab doing research, but they also emphasize fun. Organized social events --from trips to dinners on the town-- are common. You’re with a community of fellow students interested in pursuing doctoral degrees-- many of whom will become your good friends. When I was at MIT, we had cookouts and dinner parties and closed the program out by going to Martha’s Vineyard. So don’t think it’s all work and no play-- these programs are fun too!  

Finding a program

When looking for opportunities keep in mind 1) what you want to research 2) where you would like to be and 3) what the program has to offer. You can find these opportunities in a variety of ways-- from Google searching to asking the chair of your department. I’ve attached links to a list of summer research programs across the nation, but these are by no means exhaustive. Use them as a starting point. Deadlines are approaching quickly so get your application materials ready and start applying!

PS. Here's some links to help you with your research: 

Summer Undergraduate Research Opportunities

Summer Undergraduate Research Opportunities in STEM

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Tags: graduate admissions