A few days ago I visited the HHMI headquarters to attend the annual Exceptional Research Opportunity Program (EXROP) meeting. In 2013, I was an EXROP fellow at the very same meeting, about to embark on a life-changing summer of research at Stanford University. This time, I was attending the meeting to give advice from the perspective of a senior graduate student and to facilitate conversations between the research fellows themselves. Little golden nuggets of wisdom were being thrown left and right and they were too good not to share. In this post, I’ll summarize a few important steps to success whether this is your first summer research experience or your last before graduating college.
Before your summer research starts:
Don’t make assumptions; make a list of questions to ask. Not only is every research program going to be different, each lab is different. Set up a call with your direct mentor in the lab for the summer (most likely a grad student or postdoc, not the PI) to go over some basic questions.
- What kind of techniques should you be familiar with?
- What are some seminal papers and reviews that will provide a good background for the research project?
- What times are you expected to be in the lab?
- Do you need any special attire? Will you being doing a lot of field work? (One of my friends packed for a hot summer but ended up working in the cold room most of the time and needed to buy a winter coat!)
- Are there any trainings you need to do before starting work? Can you do those before arrival?
You should also consider calling or emailing with the administration of the summer program to figure out your housing and stipend situation.
- Will you have a roommate? Can you have their contact info?
- What is the food situation? Do you have a kitchen or will you be eating at dining halls?
- How often will you get paid? What kind of tax forms will you be receiving?
- Will there be mandatory meetings and/or GRE prep classes?
As you’re preparing and packing for a summer of research, keep in mind that you’ll probably be spending the bulk of your time doing work. You should definitely pack exercise and outdoor clothes as well as business casual clothes, but in general, pack comfortable and lab-safe or fieldwork clothing to work in. Leave room in your suitcase for souvenirs or clothing purchases while you’re there.
During the summer:
Once you get to the lab, your productivity depends on a lot more than your work ethic and skill. You will have to learn quickly how to best communicate and take control of the short time you’re in the lab. To do this, figure out a schedule to check-in with your lab mentor and/or PI. You should also communicate what you do and don’t know. Don’t let your pride or shyness get in the way of your growth. It takes a bit of bravery, but set expectations in the first week of arrival. Have a conversation about what they want from you this summer and what you’d like to get out of it. You can even bring up a goal of obtaining authorship from the work this summer. It might not be possible in every lab, but if your mentors know your intentions, they can mentor you better.
Make sure you have a good grasp on the work that you’re doing. You don’t need to read an entire textbook about your field, but you should have read about a dozen papers and reviews that are related to your work this summer. Don’t hesitate to ask your mentor for guidance on identifying key pieces of literature. Set a goal of papers to read each week and ask questions if you get caught up. You’re surrounded by experts in the field – don’t sleep on it! You can use this free tool I created to organize your self-guided learning: The Journal Article Notebook.
If you find yourself with down-time, ask what the other members of the lab are doing. You can even strike up more casual conversations about their career paths and what they do in their free time. You should try to get to know everyone in the lab and you can begin forming what working long-term in this lab/field would be like.
After a few weeks in the lab, you should check in with your mentor on your performance. Open the door for constructive criticism so that you can grow faster and achieve the expectations you set at the beginning of the summer. If things aren’t going so well, talk to others that can advocate for you whether they’re other people in the lab or administrators of the summer program.
One of the most important skills in conducting research is being proactive and asking questions. You should always be asking questions whether they clarify your understanding of something fundamental or if they push the project further. Volunteer to do work you’re not assigned. There is always more research and work to be done. Start exercising the muscle of identifying next steps and flex them with your mentor!
Remember that you have lots of opportunities outside of the lab too. Whether you’re interested in pursuing graduate school, medical school, or something else entirely, you are surrounded by people that you can learn from. Set up meetings with people you’d like to shadow or meet with and introduce yourself as a summer research fellow. You’d be surprised how many people will respond! It’s easy to feel like just another random student but you need to be bold and take chances. The worst thing anyone can do is ignore the email or say no.
As your research experience begins to wrap up, you’ll begin preparing to present it. Make sure to clarify with your mentor what information you can or can’t share. Some labs have stricter policies on disclosing experimental results if the field is especially cutthroat or if the project is confidential. Start looking into conferences that you can present at. ABRCMS and SACNAS are great conferences for undergrads and often have travel awards that will cover flights and a hotel. Graduate schools often recruit at these conferences and you can ask for application fee waivers while you’re there. In addition, you can ask your mentors of any field-specific conferences that you should try to present at, especially ones that they are planning on attending!
An important note is that it’s very easy to get caught up in the summer. You want to make an impact and the short timeline often forces late nights and working on the weekends. While you should definitely make an effort to exceed expectations, don’t let that compromise your health. Your mental and physical health can be affected by overwork and impostor syndrome. Check in with yourself and make sure you have people to talk to that can support you whether that’s in your peers in the program or in people back home that you can call. Get exercise when you can and make sure to eat healthy and get enough sleep.
After the summer:
Follow up and stay in touch with your lab mentors. Send them a thank you note once you get home and update them with photos whenever you get a chance to present the research you conducted. Before you left, you should have discussed letters of recommendation, and staying in touch via email will make it even easier to remind them once you’re in the midst of applications. Mentors sign up for these programs to make a difference in their students’ lives. Let them know that they have done a good job and that you are grateful for the experience.
If you are interested in working with them again, let them know! Some programs might have funding to bring you back the next summer or the lab might even be able to fund you. I know a handful of people who ended up at the same school (and even lab) where they spent a summer doing research. Keep your ties intact and realize that you are part of a prestigious network of research scientists now!
This summary of tips is not exhaustive so if you have something to add, please leave a comment! Best of luck to all doing a summer research program!