How to find your perfect summer internship

Summer research internships for high school and college students can be wonderful opportunities to learn new skills, explore interests and apply knowledge from the classroom to the real world. The right internship can help students determine whether they could do this type of work forever, and even set them up for future positions. 

But how do you find that internship that’s right for you? Rather than applying to a few programs you’ve heard of through the grapevine and calling it a day, it can be helpful to begin the process by thinking broadly—after all, the world is your oyster! 

A simple Google search will provide countless research opportunities at laboratories, hospitals and universities, which, while reassuring, can be difficult to navigate. Thankfully, certain organizations have done a lot of the legwork for students, and collect catalogs of research positions on their websites.

“I suggest going through the Research Experiences for Undergraduates page on the National Science Foundation website,” says Kelly Cochran, a senior at Missouri Western State University and a 2015 graduate of The Jackson Laboratory Summer Student Program. “Make an extensive list of the programs you’re interested in, and then rank them based on your interest.” 

Cochran recommends having a clear idea of the type of program you’d like to participate in beforehand, as you will have very limited time to devote to the application process. So what’s the process for narrowing down what could be an overwhelming number of options? 

Here are five important factors to keep in mind:

  1. Experience: Will this position allow you to gain skills and experience in your particular area of interest? Or, if you don’t know exactly what you’re interested in yet, will it allow you to explore new areas?
  2. Personal development: Will you have the chance to develop more than just professionally? And if so, how much emphasis do you want to place on personal development (such as goal-setting or communication skills)? Programs can range from giving complete independence on a research project to actively guiding students in a nurturing, learning experience. Keep in mind where the sweet spot on the spectrum is for your learning style and ideal summer experience.
  3. Work-life balance: Do you want to work full-time or part-time? Do you want to live at home and commute or apply to positions farther away (and potentially have to deal with the logistics of housing)? Internships are a great chance to experience a new environment, but at the expense of spending time with family or friends from home or relaxing during your longest stretch of time away from school. Consider which is most important to you and research each position’s location and expectations before you apply.
  4. Money: How much money do you need to make by the end of the summer, for textbooks, loans, late-night food funds, etc.? Many internships are unpaid, offer an hourly wage, or provide a modest stipend. Make sure you are comfortable with the options, and don’t waste time applying to unpaid or low-paying internships that don’t provide housing or food if you’d never be able to afford the summer or next school year.
  5. Career stepping-stone: Will the internship open up new doors in the future? It’s worth thinking about the program’s alumni network, career trajectories of past students, and reputation of the institution. Can you see your experience and relationships formed through this position as a stepping-stone toward your future goals?

Once you’ve decided which programs to devote your time to, begin applying!

“You’d best start looking early, because deadlines are as early as December,” advises Boston University sophomore John Wong, who studies human physiology in hopes of becoming a doctor. “Keep your resume updated, prepare references and apply everywhere.”

Of course, many programs are competitive and can’t accept every applicant. Applying to around 10 programs (though the number may seem arbitrary) is generally considered practical in order to cover your bases. But how can you make yourself stand out in these applications? What do admissions officers look for when accepting students into research positions?

Michael McKernan is the Program Director of STEM and Undergraduate Education at The Jackson Laboratory. He is charged with selecting students for the JAX Summer Student Program, in which high school and college students spend 10 weeks conducting biomedical research at campuses in either Farmington, Conn., or Bar Harbor, Maine. He says it’s important for applicants to demonstrate to admissions officers that they are serious about wanting to work at this specific institution.

“Students have limited opportunities to stand out in what is often a crowded pool of applicants,” McKernan says. “It’s not enough to say ‘I’ve been fascinated by science since the third grade.’ It is essential to come across as an actual interesting person who thinks about science and wonders about scientific questions on a daily basis, but connect your scientific thinking to a real research project.

“Say why working at a specific research institute, on a specific project, is significant to you. And give reasons why.”

In other words, once you have the grades and prior relevant experience, personal essays are important to the application process by giving you the chance to explain your motivations. And with potentially thousands of qualified applicants, the essay allows you to distinguish yourself from the pack.

“After applying to 10 different programs, I personally emailed my top choice—The Jackson Laboratory—explaining exactly why their research was perfect for me,” Cochran says. “My mentor told me that my honesty got me the position, followed by my passion for optometry and boldness to reach out to him first.”

Like Cochran, this above-and-beyond effort demonstrating interest, commitment, and fearlessness just may push you into the group of especially appealing applicants. And if you want that job, it’s most definitely worth a try.

Above all, throughout what can be a lot of stress added onto the pre-existing pressures and workload of school, remember that the summer internship search is itself a learning process. While the end goal may be securing a position for a few weeks in the summer, take the time to think about who you are now, what excites and energizes you, and who you want to become down the road.

That’s the beauty of the job hunt: no matter where you apply, and no matter where you ultimately find yourself, you are more in touch with yourself and more prepared to embrace the future by the end.