Research Electives – A Focused Approach
Undertaking a summer research elective is a great way to assess whether academic research is something you would be interested in incorporating into your future training or career, as well as a way to add something different to your CV when applying for more academically-oriented specialisation training programmes. Despite this, very few people take advantage of the opportunities available to them, and many that are interested in summer research simply don’t know where to start looking.
This article will give a brief overview of where to start when considering a research elective, along with summaries of several major funding opportunities for undergraduate research, followed by a number of first-hand accounts from students who have previously completed research electives.
Broadly speaking, when planning a research elective you should consider the research group, the location and funding. Where you start should be dictated by the relative importance of these factors to you.
If there’s a really specific area you want to work in you’re effectively governed by where groups working in that area are located. If you aren’t already aware of them, Google search will usually identify places pretty quickly, as will researching the principal investigators (PIs) of publications written in the field. It’s important, however, to look at the group’s publication lists to see if it is actually in line with your interests.
However, if you really want/need to be somewhere specific then look at the relevant university’s research page and try to find groups you’re interested in at that institution. Prioritising location above all else is a dangerous approach though, as you’re far more likely to end up with a topic that you aren’t interested in. Then again it is still your summer, so whether you’re happier in southern California doing work you hate or in northern Sweden doing something you love is a personal choice.
Funding is probably the single largest limiting factor in terms of organising a research elective. You probably shouldn’t work for free, it’s not very good for your bank account and knowing you’re at least being paid makes it more bearable when an experiment goes on for way too long. There are a number of major undergraduate research programmes, outlined below, and many of these have restrictions on where you can take the money – this is also an important consideration. If funding is a major concern for you, it may be worth limiting your search to groups you know you will be eligible for funding programmes with. Outside of these programmes, it is also important to investigate whether your university / department offers funding to students interested in research, or to simply ask a PI you have contacted about a project for assistance in securing funding.
Once you have identified research groups, the next major step is getting in contact with them. PIs in major institutions receive a large number of unsolicited emails every day and some simply can’t take summer students regardless of how well worded your email is, so if you want a response it is best to keep it short and to the point – briefly explain who you are and why you want to work with them, and attach a more detailed CV and cover letter in case they are interested. This demonstrates respect for the PI’s limited time, and any principal investigators that can potentially accommodate you will respond to iron out the details.
Preparing Funding Applications
If you are planning to apply for funding from one of the following programmes, it is important to make careful note of their deadlines. Outline this to all potential PIs as soon as you have confirmation that they can take on students – because you will need adequate time in advance of application deadlines, many of which are in early February, to develop a project proposal with your PI.
In addition, you will need letters of recommendation for many applications, and it is important to ensure that your referees have enough time to write and submit their letters in advance of any deadlines. Asking someone to write and submit a letter of recommendation by the end of the day is unlikely to result in a very favourable response. In terms of who to ask, this will depend on previous experience – someone who has previously supervised you directly in an academic setting, such as a supervisor for a previous project, is ideal.
It’s worth putting some serious time into your personal statements – many of the undergraduate funding programmes are very competitive, so it’s important that you very clearly outline why you’re applying and how this opportunity would benefit you – i.e. make it clear how this research elective fits into your overall “career plan” (Note that no one will be checking up on you to verify you followed this plan).
Given the time it takes to properly prepare an application and the early funding deadlines, it’s necessary to start planning very early in the academic year if you want to be eligible for one of the funding opportunities outlined below. Generally speaking, it is never too early to register your interest with a potential research group.
Other Funding Sources
There are a numerous other funding sources for undergraduate research outside of the opportunities listed above. In the event that there is a specific lab you want to work with which is not eligible for one of the above sources, or if you were unsuccessful in getting funding from these sources, it is important to consider whether getting funding either from your university is possible or whether the PI of the lab can organise funding.
Many universities have specific funds for aiding students interested in research. For example, the Trinity College School of Medicine offer the Henry Cooke Drury Student Research Fellowship, which students organising a research project can apply for by submitting a project proposal and a rough breakdown of the amount required. Funds such as these offer flexibility in terms of where the project is carried out, and many have significantly later application deadlines (the Henry Cooke Drury Student Research Fellowship applications close in mid- to late-April); this offers additional time to develop a project proposal for students deciding late in the year to carry out a research elective.
Finally, if it is not possible to acquire funding through any of the sources mentioned above, it is worth asking the PI you are planning to work with for assistance – they will likely be aware of where any previous students have acquired funding, and in some cases may even be able to acquire funding for your project through one of their own sources.