Spectra's STEM Internship Survival Guide - Academia & Research

Considering applying for STEM internships? Interested in experiences inside or outside of academia? Unsure how to get funding for these exciting opportunities (as a U.S. citizen, international, or undocumented student)? It can be hard to find summer opportunities while studying for midterms and completing coursework. Fortunately, Spectra (Amherst College's very own Physics, Biophysics, and Astronomy club) hosted a Summer Internship Survival Guide during which Maria Belota Moreno‘21 and Chloe Wohlgemuth‘22 disclosed their tips for getting their past internships. Below is the survival guide created by Moreno to help you secure and thrive in your next STEM internship.


Topics:

  • How to secure an internship

  • Options for international and undocumented students

  • How to find the right lab and supervisor

  • How to make the most of your internship

How to Secure an Internship: 

Deadlines are typically in December-January for research internships in academia!


1. REUs:

What are REUs?

  • Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) are research programs funded by the NSF. 

  • There are several REU programs throughout the country across disciplines and in many different colleges and universities.

  • The demand for REUs is extremely high, so some REU programs have acceptance of 1% or less. A lot of times, acceptance can come down to sheer luck. Not being accepted into an REU does not mean you aren’t qualified! There simply aren’t enough spots.

  • Do not despair! REUs are only one out of MANY options for internships in research/academia. You should definitely apply if you are eligible and interested, but do have plenty of backup options.


Funding/Eligibility for REUs:

  • US citizens and permanent residents: 

  • are eligible and, if accepted, will be fully funded (generally ~$5000 to cover living costs and possibly an extra travel stipend on top of that).

  • International, DACA, and undocumented students: 

  • are NOT eligible for REU-NSF funding, but (in most cases) can still apply for REUs as an independently funded student. Most REU websites will indicate on their website whether they allow independently-funded students. If they don’t, you can email the program and ask. 

  • The Amherst College Loeb Center has a generous fund for students with unpaid internships, so if you get accepted into an REU as an independently funded student, you can request funding from the Loeb Center funding for Unpaid and Low-Paying Internships. Your stipend may be larger if your internship is away from home (to compensate for living costs).

  • Reach out to Casey Jo in the Loeb Center for assistance!



2. Non-REU programs within the US:


Option 1: Applying to Other Types of Research Programs 

  • Outside of REUs, there are many other fully-funded research programs in the US! They work more or less the same as REUs, but are funded through different sources (not the NSF). 


Option 2: Contacting Professors Directly

  • You can also work directly with a professor whose research you’re interested in (without applying for a specific program). Just email them expressing interest in their research and be sure to attach your CV!

  • Reach out to the Loeb Center for help with writing emails to professors and for help making your CV. 

  • Most professors have funding for students who reach out to them. In fact, many will choose not to advertise undergraduate positions because they believe the students who are most interested will reach out to them.

  • Even if the professor in question doesn’t have funding, Amherst does (see the Loeb Center funding for Unpaid and Low-Paying Internships). In that case, you can say in your email “I would be willing to work on a volunteer basis, as my school can provide funding for my living expenses.” Any professor would be crazy to say no to free labor!

  • This is your safest bet since REUs and other programs CANNOT accommodate all students who apply.

  • The Loeb Center now has someone dedicated to science careers specifically (Dr. Carolyn Margolin). She has a weekly newsletter of STEM programs/internships. Reach out to her to be added to it.


Funding for non-REU programs/opportunities in the US:

US Citizens and permanent residents: 

  • Pretty much always eligible/fully funded. Stipends vary by program.

  • SURF/Greg S. Call are options within Amherst College.

International Students: 

  • Each program has different eligibility requirements, so check individually. Many will provide funding only for US citizens and permanent residents, but it’s always worth asking if they allow independently funded students to apply, and then requesting funding from the Loeb Center funding for Unpaid and Low-Paying Internships.

  • Unlike with REUs, Professors are allowed to use their NSF funding to pay international students. 

  • If you’re off-campus working within the US, reach out to CISE, as you will have to apply for OPT or CPT. CPT is cheaper to acquire and doesn’t detract from your post-graduation OPT time if you intend to work in the US after graduation (remember, STEM majors get 2 years), so I would recommend this option. You will have to take a half-credit course the following semester to “reflect on the things you learned from your internship,” but that should be fairly simple and straightforward.

  • You can also reach out to professors outside of the US. This means you wouldn’t have to worry about OPT or CPT. Work and tourist VISA requirements/ exemptions vary depending on your passport country.

  • SURF/Greg S. Call are options within Amherst College.

DACA students:

  • Each program has different eligibility requirements, so check individually. Many will provide funding only for US citizens and permanent residents, but it’s always worth asking if they allow independently funded students to apply, and then requesting funding from the Loeb Center funding for Unpaid and Low-Paying Internships.

  • Unlike with REUs, professors are allowed to use their NSF funding to pay DACA students, as DACA allows for legal employment within the US.

  • SURF/Greg S. Call are options within Amherst College.

  • Reach out to Casey Jo in the Loeb Center for assistance!

Undocumented students:

  • Each program has different eligibility requirements, so check individually. Many will provide funding only for US citizens and permanent residents, but it’s always worth asking if they allow independently funded students to apply, and then requesting funding from the Loeb Center funding for Unpaid and Low-Paying Internships.

  • SURF/Greg S. Call are options within Amherst College.

  • Reach out to Casey Jo in the Loeb Center for assistance!


3. Research programs/opportunities outside of the US:

  • You can also apply for programs or reach out to Professors outside of the US!

  • This may be particularly helpful for international students, as many research programs/opportunities outside of the US (especially Europe-based ones) tend to have little to no citizenship eligibility requirements. 

  • Canada, the UK, and Germany in particular are very good options. They usually have funding regardless of citizenship (although if they don’t, Amherst provides even more funding if you’re doing an unpaid internship abroad, so it works out! See the Loeb Center funding for Unpaid and Low-Paying Internships guidelines). STEM internships are usually conducted in English, regardless of location.

  • If you’re planning on studying abroad, you can reach out to a professor while you’re there and you might be able to do research over the semester or the summer! 

  • Some countries will allow you to work while on a student visa (like Ireland), or switch to a work visa while you’re there as a student. For some countries, if you’re getting paid on a stipend rather than a salary, you do research while on a student or tourist visa (like in the UK) and won’t have to worry about applying for a work visa at all.


Funding for research outside the US (regardless of country of citizenship, provided that you are legally able to travel abroad/reenter the US):

  • You may have to apply for a work visa if you’re getting paid by the lab/program in that foreign country. However, many countries have visa exemptions for STEM researchers (for instance, Canada). 

  • Work and tourist VISA requirements/exemptions vary depending on your passport country.

  • Some countries will allow you to work on a student visa, or switch to a work visa while you’re there.

  • For other countries, if you’re getting paid on a stipend rather than a salary, you don’t even need to worry about your visa (example: the UK).

If you’re receiving funding from Amherst’s Loeb Center funding for Unpaid and Low-Paying Internships, you can usually enter the foreign country on a tourist visa, as from this country’s perspective you are self-funded and are simply doing volunteer work.


An Overview of Funding Eligibility:


Some more resources on funding:


Funding for Unpaid/Low-paying internships:

Funding for Summer Internships - Loeb Center


For DACA and Undocumented Students:

STEM Internships for Undocumented Students

Information for Undocumented Students - Loeb Center


For International Students:

Off-Campus Employment for Intl. Students – CISE


For Everyone:

Loeb Center Guides on CVs, Resumes, Interviews, etc


How to find the right lab/supervisor:


ALWAYS VIBE CHECK!!

  • While choosing a lab with research that you find interesting is very important, perhaps even more important is picking a supervisor with whom you’ll get along. 

  • Why is that? Well, most of the time you won’t get to work on the main project listed on the lab website as an undergraduate, since those are reserved for graduate students. This means you will likely undertake a side project. The quality of this project and the degree to which you are allowed to contribute highly depends on your supervisor. What really matters is picking a supervisor who will give you a meaningful project, will be willing to meet with you and work through your questions and will allow you to actually contribute to the research going on in that lab.

How do I pick a supervisor?

  • Before committing to working in a lab, ask the professor/supervisor what project they intend on giving you. If they can’t give you an answer to this question, be wary. 

  • Email a grad student who works in the lab (you can usually find their email on the lab website) and ask about their experience working there. Here are some things you might want to ask written in a polite way (as well as the “translation” of what you’re actually asking):


4. How to make the most your of your internship:


Best case scenario: You found an awesome supervisor and research that you really enjoy and everything is going well. Congratulations and enjoy your internship!


Worst case scenario: So you’re stuck in a less-than-ideal internship experience. What now? Fear not. You can still make the most out of it! Here’s how:

  • Ultimately, how you market yourself and your skills can be more important than anything else. Even if your internship is not what you expected, if you focus on gaining a few marketable skills, you won't be at a disadvantage later on. Think about what you could do during your internship that would amount to a meaningful entry in your resume/CV, something you can talk about in a grad school personal statement, and a decent research poster. Of course it’s best to have an internship where you learn so much you struggle to fit everything into a poster and/or your CV! But we’re talking about how to salvage the worst-case scenario here.

What you should do:

  • Be honest with your professor/supervisor. Ask if you can have a project to work on. Ask if there’s anything that needs work in the lab, and make yourself available to learn about the topic and work on it. Be open-minded! Sometimes communicating about what you need and advocating for yourself can fix any issues you might be experiencing.

  • Read a lot! Ask your professors for relevant papers/textbooks to read. You can make your research poster into an educational/expository one if you weren’t able to get many results from your research. You can also list your newfound knowledge as a skill in your CV!

  • Run simulations. Papers and textbooks may tell you how. You’ll get nice graphs for your poster, and you can list them as theoretical results or models. You can list either the coding language or software you used as a skill on your CV.

  • Ask if you can design something on CAD. It’s easy to pick up and labs always need new parts. You’ll get nice images for your poster AND you will be able to list CAD design as a skill on your CV.

  • Journal your experience. It will help you write internship applications in the future, make a poster, and update your CV later on. When you apply for your next internship, you’ll know more about what you like and what you dislike. You are also 100% allowed to tell an interviewer/supervisor for a future job “in my last internship, I felt I wasn’t able to fully explore [blank].” You can then ask them if you’ll be allowed to do [blank] in their lab, or, if you did your research and already know you will, you can tell them that’s one of the reasons you’re interested in their lab!

When you’re speaking about your “bad internship” experience to future interviewers or in future applications, focus on the positive:

  • How you were proactive and were able to make the most it of it

  • How you took the time to learn more about the research

  • How it taught you what types of internships/research you wanted to do in the future

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