So you want a summer research position?

No matter what year of study you are in, there are always research opportunities available to you on campus. Although most labs I speak of will be science-related, given that this is my area of study, the general approach to finding a research position should be more or less the same. Below, I've discussed some of the most commonly asked questions regarding undergraduate research, and added in some things I've learned from personal experience. As usual, don't be afraid to ask questions, either here on UpbeaT, to a professor, or to people in the Career Centre. Finding your first "official" research position as an undergraduate can most definitely be a disorienting and anxiety-inducing process, but your chances of success are also very high, given that we are such a research-oriented institution, and opportunities are everywhere (see the end of this post for resources and links to useful sites). It's not even winter. Isn't it a bit too early to apply for summer research? Do relax and take this one step at a time, but I must warn you straight off the bat: if you plan to start looking for a summer position even in mid-January, you might be too late. A lot of deadlines in fact occur in late January, and since undergrad positions are often available on a first come, first served basis, the keener you are, the easier your life will be (remember, you are at U of T, where students go to lectures half-an-hour ahead of time to save rows of seats for their friends). Most people tend to start contacting professors as early as the end of November/start of December. Keep in mind a general timeline, and take into account the time spent on researching your potential PI (short for Principal Investigator, a.k.a. the "owner" of the lab), writing up emails and polishing your résumé. Also, be mentally prepared to be rejected, or, worse, receive no email response…ever. So…?! [yanks out hair] If this is your first time applying to a summer research position, you are probably overwhelmed already. I remember when I was in first year: in merely eight months' time, I went from finally grasping the concept of grade point average to obsessing over said grade point average. Not to mention that little freaky episode of declaring a major. Amidst all this, anybody — except for some of those fabulous straight As on Biome — would have been a saint to not only know how to find summer research, but also manage to get a position. So, to draw a clearer picture for you, here's what people usually do:
  1. Check out your options: where are the opportunities? I can promise you, some kid in your BIO150 class of more than 2,000 students will mightily try to win over Professor Barrett by consistently sitting in the first row of Con Hall so he/she can rush up immediately after to ask questions. Don't freak out — your options go way beyond Barrett, or any professor teaching the whale of a class. There are summer research programs offered by many different departments (see list at the end of this post), though these tend to require a high GPA. There are positions in surrounding hospitals, in either wet labs or clinical research labs (most hospitals offer their own summer research programs). And there are unlisted opportunities that you might be able to obtain using simple networking techniques. Try your best to get a paid position. Trust me, they exist, even if the money comes from external funding through, for example, the Heart and Stroke Foundation. For many, many reasons, most PIs are hesitant to take on volunteers, so offer to volunteer only as a last option. *Note: some PIs are affiliated with more than one program/department, and might hire through a variety of programs. **Also note: for department-affiliated research programs, you can still apply even if your programs of study are from other departments.
  2. Apply early, and definitely NOT by the indicated deadline. Most PIs don't sit around playing HR professional. They are busy, busy people, and many just take the first student who contacts them, if he or she is deemed qualified. For most summer programs or awards, like the LMP Summer Research Program, or NSERC USRA (see below for a complete list of awards and opportunities), you'll need to secure a supervisor before submitting your application. The "deadline" refers to the date that all documents should be sent to an administrative office. Before this step, you'll have to have (a) contacted the PI, (b) met the PI, (c) got the position, (d) discussed with the PI your project for the summer and anything else of importance, such as applying for external funding, and (e) had the necessary documents signed by the PI. The only exception I can think of is Medical Biophysics. Their process requires you to submit a general application and two references, as well as a list of potential PIs you'd like to work for, and the labs will pick from a list of applicant profiles.
  3. Be genuine in your email/cover letter. Sometimes, people will tell you that mass-spamming profs actually does work. If this were true, it would be because you send out so many emails — a probability thing. Most times, though, PIs can definitely tell if you've just copied and pasted a "general" email to them. Take the time to personalize it, and in this way, demonstrate your passion for their area of research. Make your voice a unique one. I wouldn't recommend getting every single email critiqued at the Career Centre, because that would be too time-consuming. Instead, get one critiqued, as well as your résumé, so you better understand your areas of weakness and make changes accordingly. It's a good idea to read a few of the PI's papers so you can effectively discuss your interest in his or her work through email. Each PI usually has an online profile under the department he or she is affiliated with, and within this profile you can often find valuable information, such as a summary of the PI's research interests, what the PI looks like, how many people are in the lab and what they do (sometimes it will state how many undergraduate students are in the lab and if the PI is looking to take on any more students).
  4. Passion is everything. GPA is not. Don't be thrown off by the fact that you might not know everything about the PI's research. It's more important that you have a solid grasp of everything you've learned so far in your courses, and communicate this, along with the passion you have for research. While some PIs will indeed take on students primarily based on their GPA, most realize that when it comes to research, marks are not fully representative of your potential at all. That being said, if a summer program indeed has a high cut-off (most of them do, unfortunately) and you do not meet this, apply anyway. Emphasize your other strengths in your application. Think about it: What could happen — except an unexpected opportunity?
  5. Interviews. Treat them like any job interview. Dress professionally. Write thank-you letters after you've met with the PI. Prepare for hard-hitting questions, such as those that cast doubt on your GPA, as well as the usual list of questions (e.g., "What interests you about research?" "What are your plans after undergrad?").
  6. Network. Tell people you are looking for a research position. Talk to your TAs — most of them are master's or PhD students and can at least give you some helpful hints. This was actually how I got my current lab position.
Is it common for first-years to get these positions? Some first-years do, though it's probably much easier for those finishing their third year, and maybe second year. I had a friend who contacted a PI at Sickkids in mid-November of her first year, and got a position straight off the bat. You never know what's going to happen, so make sure you are well prepared. Big lab? Small lab? Each lab has its own culture. The smaller labs are more intimate, and your PI might interact with you a lot, giving you guidance and support on a daily basis. The bigger labs can be mind-boggling — it's a much more self-directed environment. You might never see your PI, but instead interact with a "supervisor" who might be a postdoc or PhD student. Often, though, bigger labs have more funding. More available resources means that you might even be granted the freedom to boldly take your experiments in a new direction. There could be, however, a lot of pressure to get paper-worthy results. Don't be too picky You should be looking for areas of research that intrigue you, but don't let this deter you from applying to lots of labs that you might feel slightly unsure about. Any opportunity will offer growth — sometimes an unfamiliar one even more so. As an undergrad, you are looking to gain some hands-on research skills, to get a feel of what research is truly like, and also to make a contribution to your lab. A good learning experience is what you make of it. Good luck! May the Force be with you! - Lucy


* Note: Although information packages for summer 2010 are not out yet, they don't change much from year to year.

13 comments on “So you want a summer research position?

  1. Great article, thanks for all the tips!

    I’m not expecting to be able to obtain any research positions as I’m in engineering and PI’s are generally more inclined to get people with more practical knowledge; nevertheless, I’ll definitely try anyway.

    For anyone wondering though, here’s a website for ECE research at UofT:

    The’re all pretty interesting, though some definitely more than others.

    Once again, thanks for all the tips!


  2. Lucy, I just went and met a program coordinator for the department I’m thinking of next applying to, and he basically (in as many words) stated what you’ve written down as #4 on your list- that passion about what you’re doing is one of the most important traits that is looked for in students. I think it’s a really good point to bring up, particularly as I know I’ve been in situations before where I haven’t applied to different things (bursaries/positions/etc) because I figured that other people would be more deserving or more apt to be chosen. It’s a good thing to know, that you don’t have to be omniscient or have a perfect GPA to be accepted. I guess that’s partially the point too- these things exist so that we learn by doing them, and not because we are supposed to have innate expertise before entering into them.


  3. @Mary: EXACTLY! We are students, and profs understand this (although they still expect you to know the basics, like if you are applying to a molecular biology lab, they’d expect you to know the concept and basic procedures for PCR off the top of your head). And truth be told, you’ll get your training once you are in the lab, and each lab has their own set of precise protocols to use for (e.g.) Western blotting.

    One thing I forgot to add was that, in your resume, definitely focus on your lab components in core science courses, and the more actual LAB COURSE you take, the better. Of course, the skills for, say, DNA extraction, that you learn for 2 hours in a second year bio lab is probably not sufficient by any means, but it at least demonstrates passion, interest, and previous exposure. (also emphasize transferable skills, like analytical, problem solving, writing, public speaking, quantitative, attention to detail, working with your hands, working independently, projects where perseverance makes a difference) MAKE SURE that you say you are a QUICK LEARNER, because I’ve found this to be a very important qualification. The learning curve for research is ridiculously steep.

  4. Hi Vindictus,

    Thanks for the link! I’m sure a lot of students will find it helpful–I apologize for not being able to provide a lot of tips on engineering research positions. Good luck with your search though!


  5. Hey Lucy,
    Thanks for the post, it’s extremely helpful.
    I was wondering if there are labs that take second year students since most profs I’ve talked to seem to want only fourth years..
    I was also unclear if the project you work on is something assigned to you by your PI or if its something you come up with yourself and your PI just supervises.

  6. Hi Eesha,

    You are very welcome!

    It’s actually not extremely difficult to find summer research positions in second year. A lot of my friends in fact did find research to do during the summer of 2nd year. I’m not sure about your grades, but if you have a fantastic GPA, and start your search early and contact lots of PIs, I’m sure you’ll have no trouble securing one this upcoming summer. Just start early. Like start now, even. Even if your GPA is not extremely outstanding, as long as you just keep on sending out e-mails and contacting profs, I’m sure you’ll be able to secure some kind of a position. Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket (e.g. don’t just apply to the profs in the Mount Sinai summer program, or even worse, put your faith in just one prof who made you a semi-promise). Expand your network, and tell everyone you meet that you are looking for a summer research position. Be resourceful and literally SCAVENGE.

    It really helps if you are mentally prepared. I would say the best time to e-mail would be the few days right after your exams but before the holidays. Don’t assume that profs won’t check their e-mails during the break and therefore put off sending out resumes because of that. Also don’t assume that if they don’t reply, it might be because they are on vacation. Sometimes this is the case, other times you just didn’t get the position.

    If you keep on getting rejected, keep on sending out e-mails and maybe make a few calls. I sent out about 45 e-mails last year and was still sending them out by February. Then I got a position by mid-March I think. So, really, you never know!

    Good luck!

  7. Thanks for the great, informational post.

    Just curious – What are the typical time commitments with summer positions? Is it still possible to take some summer courses while doing research, or is it similar to a full-time job?


  8. Hi Rob,

    You are welcome! Time commitment varies depending on what kind of lab you are in and who your PI is. It is more like a full-time job. Sometimes, if your PI is more laid back, you can pull of a regular 9-to-5 Monday to Friday with no problem (and maybe even 10-to-4 on some days). If your PI is pushy for results though, you might find yourself being in a lab for more than 8 hours a day, and perhaps even on weekends. I don’t think taking summer courses while doing summer research is a good idea, although a lot of people I know have managed to study and write the MCAT at the end of August while having done summer research along the side. Hope that helped!


  9. Hey nice post,

    I was wondering what kind of questions do PIs ask at interviews? I have an interview but not sure what they will ask.

  10. Hey Hari,

    It really depends on the PI. Sometimes it’s like a formal interview and they ask a whole list of questions, like:

    “Why are you interested in research?”

    “Which part of research is most exciting to you?”

    “Tell me about a time in your undergrad career so far that you had to think outside the box to solve a problem”–this is important because when you’re doing an experiment, and things just keep on failing and not working out, you can’t just do the same thing as you did last time, so you gotta try something new but at the same time it has to be reasonable, like an educated guess kind of thing

    “What do you know about __so far?” (the overall topic of their research)

    I had a post-doc ask me what was a key lesson that I had taken away from my undergrad thus far, and I told her that it was learning to have faith, because sometimes you don’t know how things would work out according to plan or not but you still gotta try your best nonetheless…and I know she was really impressed by that, because this is the attitude that makes ppl suitable for research as well.

    Sometimes they do ask very technical questions, like asking you to explain a specific mechanism (e.g. JAK2 signaling pathway, MAPK pathway, if you’re doing signaling research). I had one friend who was asked about the protocol for PCR. The question was like, before PCR was made available, ppl often used coffee makers to do a similar job. Explain how you can use a coffee maker to simulate the PCR steps.

    Again it really depends on the lab. If you’re lucky, your PI won’t even give you an interview…they’ll just sit you down, tell you about the project you’ll get, and that’s it! LOL! But in case this doesn’t happen, it’s always good if you have some general knowledge about what the PI is working on (or rather the ppl in his lab) just so yo don’t end up saying anything stupid, but I think overall, it’s more important that you have a strong grasp of the stuff you’ve learned in class thus far. Like if your lab is a primarily biochemistry/structure lab, definitely know your amino acids, which ones are polar, etc., the difference between peptide and protein, etc. If your lab is immunology and focuses on T-cell development, review this part from your lectures. If your lab is on signaling, read up on the relevant signaling pathways again. You know, the works! It never hurts to know as much as you can if you plan to go into research 🙂 ‘Cause one day, when you least expect it, your PI will quiz you on something random and it’s a great feeling if you can be like, “Oh it’s this” and impress them. LOL!

    Good luck!

  11. Hi!
    This was an amazing post and super helpful for a first year such as myself! I was really happy to hear about your friend who managed to get a research position at SickKids in first year as I’m hoping for the same. However, I was planning to wait for the list of PIs to come out in mid-December before contacting anyone. Do you think it would be better to e-mail PIs of my interest as your friend had or was her’s a special circumstance?
    P.S. I realize it’s been a few years since your original post but I’d really appreciate any advice!

  12. Hey, do you know any summer research opportunities for mathematics students? I did not find any from the department website, but I really want to get one chance to tell if course-based or research based math master fits me better! Your help will be really appreciated!

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