Maximizing Your Summer Research Experience

By now many of you have finished up finals and are preparing for your summer research experiences. Whether you’re in a formal ten-week REU program on a new campus or you’re doing a virtual research program hosted by your own campus it’s never too early to prepare. Here are 10 tips on how to get the most out of your summer research experiences.

1) Understand the culture in your lab. 
Your lab might be super laid back or more formal than you might be use to. In either case, always be professional and always on be time.  Don’t be that person who saunters in just when everyone else is leaving to go to lunch.

2) Understand that the first week or two might be boring. 
Are you spending the majority of your time downloading journal articles? Many times students get antsy because they feel like they’re not making meaningful contributions to the research project.  If you’re knee-deep in reading journals and are starting to get bored don’t worry this is completely normal.  Believe me, in no time you’ll be fully immersed in data and will be too busy to be bored.

3) Go to Everything.

If your lab invites you to paintball on Saturday then go to paintball on Saturday! If your graduate mentor and one of the Post Docs ask you if you want to join them for Boba then go with them to get Boba.  An REU program is a networking opportunity like no other.  Be an active participant in the lab even if you’re not physically in the lab.  You’ll find that those social activities will be infused with conversations about the research

4) Communication is key so make it a habit to confirm things via email.
This is important for two reasons first, you may have completely misunderstood what you’ve been asked to do and second, there are times when you need to have something in written form particularly if you need something from folks outside the lab.  Here’s an example, I once had a student request card key access to a specific lab.  Her faculty mentor told her to request access because she wasn’t a student at the university. Her faculty mentor went out of the country so when she requested lab access from the school they asked her for something explaining why she needed access.  Without a “paper trail” aka an email from her faculty mentor she was forced to wait until her faculty member came back.  She lost valuable time and sometimes had to camp out in front of the lab waiting for someone to let her in! 

5) Make it a point to connect with at least two other faculty members. If you’re in an REU program and you don’t make it a point to meet with other faculty then it’s a missed opportunity.  Think of it like visiting San Francisco and not seeing the Golden Gate Bridge. You can attend lectures or schedule an office visit to talk to faculty about their research. If you’re applying to that specific graduate program in the future then you need to make it a point to let researchers know that you are looking for graduate programs.  Don’t assume that people will seek you out. They won’t. 

6) Ask your graduate mentors about the major conferences in your research area.
Learning about these niche conferences will be important. Having publications at these conferences will give you something to strive for particularly if you’re applying to competitive Masters or PhD programs.

7) Do not wait until the last minute to work on your poster.
Most REU’s require a poster presentation at the end. Give yourself a deadline that’s before the “official deadline” so that you are not frantically working on your poster. There’s nothing worse than seeing a poster that was clearly a rush job and doesn’t reflect the work that you’ve done over the summer. And if you don’t know what they mean by “poster” don’t worry here is a great resource that explains the purpose of the poster and some general tips on creating a scientific poster.

8) Regularly ask for feedback. Make it a point to schedule times toask your graduate and faculty mentors for honest feedback. What are you doing well?  What are areas for improvement? Don’t assume that every “mentor” has been primed for the “mentor” role. 

9 If you’re applying to MS and PhD programs let your graduate and faculty mentors know. You’re going to want to get strong letters of recommendation so it’s important for your faculty and graduate mentors to be aware of what you’re hoping to achieve this summer and beyond. Even if your faculty member is not accepting new PhD or MS students (or doesn’t seem that they will accept you) you can still ask so they will prepared to provide you a letter.

Not so fun fact: Not having a letter from an REU that you’ve listed on your CV is a huge red flag in graduate admissions. 

10) Last but definitely not least, if you found your REU on REU finder, let us know so we can encourage others to apply for next years program.

Best of luck and enjoy your summer!

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