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Summer research at prestigious universities - How helpful is it?


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Hey everyone!

I am a junior at a small liberal arts college and am planning on applying to molecular bio phd Fall 2017 (not taking a gap year). I have been doing research since summer freshman year and since the upcoming summer is my last chance of doing full-time research before I apply, I really want to spend the time wisely. I am currently working in a lab at my own institution but since my PI is fairly new in the field and spend most of her time teaching, I have been thinking about doing research elsewhere to build my connections. I have seen people on thegradcafe spending the summer before they apply at very prestigious universities or working for PIs who are well-known in the field. My question is, how helpful is that in terms of getting into good phd programs? 

I would really appreciate any comment/advice!

 

Edited by pitchfork
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I think it will help but not because of the "prestigious brand name". I would highly encourage you to apply as widely as you can to as many research opportunities as you can for a position in summer 2016. It is very normal in my field for undergrads to apply to a ton of research positions each year and then if they are lucky, they will end up having to decide between a couple of choices. It's also good preparation for grad school applications!

So, what you should do is first look at nation-wide fellowships or programs, such as REUs, that will fund undergraduate researchers. Once you know the names of the various programs, you should then look up specific places you want to be working at. Sometimes a large nation-wide program will have a database of all opportunities at different schools. Otherwise, you will have to look up the school first, and then find what opportunities are available there. 

When you look up each school, you should also check for additional programs offered by the school itself. For example, the school I'm at right now offers a summer undergrad research program for students at different schools to come to our school and work with us. Usually all of these programs require you to have a sponsor at the school you're applying to. 

Therefore, my advice is to start looking now for opportunities for next summer. Find out when all the deadlines are. You will likely have to contact people at these schools to apply for their programs so work that into the timeline too. You can get help from current research mentors, current grad students at your school, and other students who may be doing the same thing. Research the various programs that you are interested in and find out which places are doing cool research! This will also help you a lot one year from now when you need to do the same thing for applying to graduate programs! 

A few more notes about this:

1. Keep in mind that the list of "prestigious" institutions for your specific subfield may be very different from general undergraduate institutions. For example, many of the Ivy league schools are not very prestigious at all in my subfield. 

2. I said above that "brand name" for undergrad research does not mean much on e.g. a CV for grad applications. But it does help in other ways. For example, my current school is a "brand name" school and they offer a very immersive and intensive summer research programs. If you are an undergrad research fellow here, you will have a special weekly seminar series designed just for you, opportunities to meet faculty members for dinner in small groups, mentorship opportunities with grad students and postdocs, and in general, these programs have a lot of money to spend on you in useful ways (e.g. send you to conferences etc.).

3. The environment is different too at a big research department in your field vs. a small department where they may only be 1 or 2 other people working on similar things. Being exposed to the breadth of your field can help you find what you are really passionate about. Many undergrads state a research interest mostly because that's the only thing they have had experience in! Also, at big programs, you are likely to meet more people and able to start building your network.

4. And it's just a good idea to get a different experience when you can! Different programs run things differently!

However, it's not like you absolutely must have done this to get into a good grad school. During undergrad, I had 16 months of full time research work (did a co-op program that was 4 years courses + 1 year research + summers research) and all of my research work was at my undergrad school (it was a big research school though). So, it's more like a "bonus" than a "must", in my opinion. If you have reasons where you can't leave your current school for the summer then find the best opportunity you can for summer 2016. But if you have a chance to go elsewhere, invest a large chunk of your time in the next few months to finding and applying for the best opportunity you can get! Apply widely!!

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It can be a good experience, or it can not, depending on the school, the summer program, and your alternatives. 

While getting a feel for other labs can be great, it can also disrupt the continuity of your research at your own institution, and I find the most important research skills people have (or lack) starting grad school are the very basics. 

Learning how to direct a project, and being extremely competent with very basic lab skills will get you a lot farther (imo) than a high-powered summer research program that you spend as much time catching up as learning.

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