Jan 15, 2017
Applying for research can be a daunting task, especially since there is no clear path for the process. This document is made to help teach you the process of applying for summer research so that you can confidently go about obtaining a research position. There are also many small tips gathered from professors and successful students to help you excel in your research endeavours! This document goes over the different ways of finding research positions, focusing on the method for writing effective emails to professors and how to obtain funding.
Why do Summer Research?
Before jumping into how to apply, it's important to recognize why you should spend an entire summer doing research. For different groups of people, there are different reasons for doing summer research. For example, if you are interested in doing graduate studies, doing summer research is strongly advised and often mandatory to get into top schools. But if you're not necessarily set on graduate school or even sure about doing summer research, there are still many great reasons for doing summer research:
- Appealing to have on graduate school and job applications
- Develop and pursue a deeper interest in a subject of interest
- Learn many technical skills that are widely applicable
- Reference letter from the professor
- Often previous experience is not mandatory
- Expand to network and potentially be inspired
- Regardless of what your end goals and interests are, summer research is obtainable and has a lot to offer.
How to find Summer Research?
Contrary to popular belief, there are multiple ways that summer research can be found. The opportunities typically fall under two categories, structured programs and cold-contacting professors. Both are great methods that should be explored for finding research!
Structured programs are typically held by departments/faculties at various universities. Each program varies, but they typically pair successful applicants with a research project under a professor. Along with doing the research, the projects typically provide some secondary events such as weekly guest lectures, a research day, etc. Another advantage is that they assist with taking care of details such as payments and/or housing. Additionally, many of these programs are held at different universities so it's also a great way to explore a different city! A drawback is that there can be less flexibility in what the research entails but it will still be in a subject area of interest.
Applications for these programs vary, but it typically involves submitting your resume, transcript and short response pieces. The easiest way to find these programs is to simply google them. Try googling something along the lines of '*insert field name* summer (undergraduate) research program' and relevant programs from different universities should come up. For example, if you google "Robotics summer research program" you get links for programs at universities like Carnegie Melon, MIT and UBC. Be wary though, some programs are only open to students who attend that university so check before applying.
Examples of official programs:
- IBBME Undergraduate Summer Research Program (Biomedical Engineering)
- Dunlap Summer Undergraduate Research Program (Astrophysics)
- Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering (Aerospace Engineering)
Deadlines for applying to these programs can vary from mid-January to the end of February, so its best to decide which programs you intend to apply to by the end of the winter break!
Cold Contacting Professors
The arguably more common way of getting a research position is cold emailing professors and arranging to work for them in the summer. This option provides more flexibility in what type of tasks you'll be doing since you're not bound to any project description. The timeline for contacting professors isn't rigid, but professors typically hire summer students from January to mid-February. The general process for how to apply for positions is outlined below:
1. Find the professor(s) who you are interested in working in
2. Send them an email to arrange a meeting/interview
3. If they're open to taking you, obtain funding
The rest of the document goes over each of these steps in more detail and provides tips for how to execute them effectively.
The Cold Emailing Process
One inescapable fact of cold-emailing professors is that the response rate can be very low. For many people applying to research for the first time, response rates from professors can be as low as 5-10%, although that's often due to not properly following the steps explained below. Nonetheless, when entering the cold emailing process, be prepared to send emails to 20 to 30 professors .
The first step for applying is finding the professors that you'd be interested in working with based on their research. The easiest way to do this is to start with a field you are interested in and then look at the faculty page that corresponds to that field. For example, if you're interested in photonics research, which would fall under ECE, google UofT ECE Professors. This should lead to a faculty directory that provides each professor's name and often links to their websites. In the event that it doesn't, googling their name + field will often help you find their website.
A professor's website shows their research interests and what they're currently working on. Do not feel like you need to understand everything that is written on the site, your goal is just to get a brief understanding of their research and whether or not it would interest you. One thing to keep in mind is that professor's websites tend to be outdated. If you're really curious in learning about what they're currently working on, check out their most recent publications via google scholar. Also keep in mind that you are not bound to UofT you are allowed to do summer research at other universities and its a great way for expanding your network!
As you start looking through professor's websites, it can often be easy to forget names and research interests. That's why its strongly suggested to have an excel sheet to keep track of parameters such as name, email, research interests and current status. This way as you're going through professor's websites, you can write down the ones you are interested in doing research with in your spreadsheet without having to remember it all. Then as you send emails out, you can keep track of your current status with them. An example of such a spreadsheet is shown below. Something like this does not take a lot of time to create, but it's a great first step for framing your emails with the professors.
Now that you have your spreadsheet done and have a list of 20+ professors, you can start sending out emails! You should note that emailing is typically the most effective way for getting in touch with professors. Its not advised to just go straight up to professors and put them on the spot.
The purpose is the email is very simple: you want to get your foot in the door. The email is not intended for you to ask for a job but simply to state your interest and try arrange a meeting to discuss potentially working with the professor. With that in mind as your purpose, your goal is to send an email that would be worth the professor's time to reply to. This means do not:
- Send out generic emails
- Make the email longer than a paragraph
- Have grammatical errors
- Be too direct by outright asking for a job
- Send the email at a strange hour
The email you want to send should only be 4 to 6 sentences, where you briefly introduce yourself, why you're interested in the professor's research and asking to set up a meeting with the professor. You will also want to attach and updated version of your resume and transcript these are things you should do on the first email to save the professor for asking you for them later on. With regards to a cover letter, they are optional and should only be included if it adds value that the email, resume and transcript do not already encompass.
An example email that I sent in my first year to get a summer position is shown below:
Keep in mind that there is no fixed structure to the email, there's simply a list of things you should and shouldn't include. To simplify all of this, I've complied a checklist you can follow for writing the email. Please note that this is not an all-inclusive list but just provides some suggestions for the bare minimum you should have before sending out the email.
- Address the professor directly (i.e. Dear Professor X)
- State who you are (program, year, university)
- State why you're interested in their field at broad
- State why you're interested in their research (personalized but not too detailed)
- Add a general statement as to why you might be a good candidate (i.e. experience, passion)
- Mention that you would like to meet or skype with them to discuss summer research
- Consider attaching your resume and transcript
- Make sure you resume and transcript are pdfs and approximately named
- Are you sending this at a time when people would normally be awake?
Remember, the purpose is to get your foot in the door and the goal is write an email that's worth a professor's time to reply to.
Replying and Following Up
Professors are busy people, which means they don't always reply to emails right away. For that reason, you shouldn't frantically be waiting for a response on their end. If they haven't replied after a week's time, it doesn't hurt to send them a follow up email. In the email you just want to remind them that you're still interested in meeting with them. After that point, if they still do not reply, it likely means they are not interested in working with you don't worry, it happens to everyone
Now if a professor replies saying that they can't hire you, for whatever reason, you should still send a thank you email within 24 hours. In the event that a spot opens up, you're more likely to be considered if you spend the 30 seconds sending the thank you email. Lastly, don't rule things out I know people who have gotten replies from professors up to 3 weeks after initially emailing them!
Sooner or later, you'll finally get a reply from a professor who's willing to meet you! There is no general structure to the ensuing interview/meeting, but there are some general common features that have come up from discussing with people. Typically, the interview (whether in person or online), involves the professor talking about their research and explaining what possible projects they could have for you. Additionally, there is usually some portion where they ask you questions about your skills and/or why you're interested in working for them.
What people may not realize is that the portion where they explain their experiments is also part of the interview. Professors are often looking to see if you are retaining the information and asking intelligent questions. The two biggest things that can carry you in an interview is asking smart questions, showing that you're interested in the research, and demonstrating passion. Showing passion and a willingness to learn can often be more important than prior experience. So make sure to come ready to be attentive and ask good questions. And of course, be sure to thank them for their time!
Finally, as the conversation is wrapping up, if the professor does not bring it up, mention the topic of summer employment. From there, the professor will discuss what route they would prefer, such as thinking about it and getting back to you, asking you to do something supplementary, etc. If this conversation does not happen, make sure that it does in a follow up email right after the meeting.
So the professor gets back to you after your meeting and has offered you a position! Now there's just the detail of getting paid. This is typically brought up by the professor after they extend you the offer but if not, its on you to ask how you'll be getting paid. Professors often ask you to apply for fellowships/grants/awards which are just fancy words for funding. Typically, fellowships/grants work by paying you anywhere from $3,000 - $6,000 and in some cases expect the professor to match the payment. The common model $3,000 from the fellowship and $3,000 from the professor. In some cases, professors will have funding to hire you even if you don't get a fellowship but sometimes they don't so its important to apply for as many as you can!
Fellowships follow two formats student first or professor first. In the first case, you apply for a fellowship and get it before agreeing to work with a professor. This allows you to meet with professors and let them know that you already have monetary backing. The latter, which is more common, requires you to first agree to working with a professor and then apply with the professor to the fellowship.
Fellowship deadlines are range from end of January to end of March. Since they tend to change year-by-year, its easier to explain how to generally find fellowships. Consider what groups you fall under as a student and google for fellowships under those names. For example, you might be a UofT student, in chemical engineering whose doing chemical-related research. Look for fellowships that apply to UofT students, engineering students, chemical engineering students, Ontario students, Canadian students, etc. Try to consider all the categories that you fall under and look around for the fellowships, there's more out there than you think!
Examples of fellowships:
Hopefully you now have a clearer picture for how to successfully get a summer research position. Its important to remain confident throughout the process and to keep working hard at it. While this guide talked about two common ways of obtaining research, don't rule out other options. Try talking with your TAs or other people you may know who are involved in academia. Even if you don't do research with them, having developed research contacts can be invaluable.
Lastly, if you do get a research summer position, make sure not to treat it as a 9-5 job - enjoy it! Definitely work hard and try to meet and surpass the expectations laid out for you but also take the time to do more than just your research. You'll be surrounded by brilliant graduate students and professors, be sure to talk with them and learn some of the wisdom they have to share.
If you are ever looking for more advice, feel free to reach out! Contact me at my email below or come out to Student Development office hours to get advice on your resume, writing your research email or professional development help!