Three steps to landing an undergraduate research internship

Personalized recommendations and a solid science background are crucial, say Ruth Gotian and Ushma S. Neill.
Ruth Gotian is the assistant dean for mentoring and chief learning officer in anaesthesiology at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City.

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Ushma S. Neill is vice-president in the Office of Scientific Education and Training at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

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Applying for internships

Credit: Adapted from Getty

Research-intensive internship programmes for undergraduates offered by medical and graduate schools are always in high demand. Here, based on our 25 years of collective experience running these programmes in the United States, we outline the three most essential components of a successful application.

1. Letters of recommendation

Although poorly written letters of recommendation are rare, a memorable few still resonate with us. The worst ones focus on the faculty member’s qualifications and give little attention to the student. Not useful are highlights of basic classroom requirements, such as: “She submitted assignments on time, was punctual and participated in discussions.”

Conversely, enthusiasm for the student and the student’s qualifications radiates off the page when the recommender truly knows the student. One such example is, “She is a joy to teach, and makes other students look like zombies.”

How can you get this kind of response when you ask for a recommendation? You’ll need to engage with the faculty member for them to be able to comment on your tenacity, curiosity and personality. Note that your letters — solicit at least two, but check programme requirements — should come from faculty members, and not from postdoctoral researchers or teaching assistants.

Also consider the timing of your request. Asking for a recommendation while faculty members are grading exams or preparing to leave for holiday is not going to work well. Propose drafting or outlining parts of the letter, highlighting your skills and underscoring your accomplishments. The faculty member probably doesn’t know that you play football, write for the university paper or hold a part-time job. When you provide this information, they can focus on writing about your intellectual prowess and critical-thinking skills.

2. Personal statement

This section is the cornerstone of your application. It must demonstrate what is unique about you and your particular motivations, and it must show that you’re dedicated to research. Take an original approach to describing your drive and don’t rely on what so many applicants bring in — personal anecdotes, especially those about family illnesses. We’re not trying to be heartless in declaring that your grandmother’s glaucoma is uninteresting — it’s just not an eyecatching approach to the essay.

Although your inspiration to go into neuroscience might have been kindled by a grandparent’s stroke, explain what research or training you’ve done since that event, rather than explaining your emotions. However, if you personally experienced the malady, these narratives can demonstrate a deep well of intrinsic motivation if you describe how you wish to change testing, diagnosis and treatment, and how you aim to work towards that goal.

One of the other most common openings to these essays, however, is the claim to enjoy solving puzzles; for example, “I find the brain very interesting. I feel like it would be a perfect match for me because I love solving puzzles, and the brain is the ultimate puzzle.” Avoid this trap, and draw instead on what makes you unique. Are you a professional dancer? First-chair tuba player? Highlight something that shows your dedication and perseverance.

Remember that these internships are likely to be a pipeline into the institution’s graduate programme or medical school. Align your essay with the school’s goal of recruiting potential applicants. To further customize your application, do some research into faculty members at that institution and discuss how their work inspires you.

Reviewers value applications that demonstrate the writer’s previous research experience. However, we recognize that not everyone has had an abundance of research opportunities. If that is your experience, then address it in your statement and emphasize other transferable skills that you bring, such as technological prowess or programming skills. Finally, acknowledge academic blemishes. The statement is the place to explain your low mark in calculus or your short-term leave. Don’t just hope that no one will notice.

3. Marks and transcripts

Your transcript cannot get you into a summer programme, but it can keep you out. In transcript review, where you went to university is not nearly as important as what you did while you were there. Make sure to take a balance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and non-STEM classes. We understand that every institution has a core curriculum, but how you supplement that curriculum with other courses is crucial, and showing that you have depth in other areas demonstrates to the reviewer that you are interesting as well.

Also, one low mark will not tank your application, but if your lowest grades are in science and maths, that will not work in your favour. Applicants who distinguished themselves in their applications have turned out to be among the best interns we’ve hosted. We knew them by their names and their stories before they arrived. We took special care with them, and many of those mentoring relationships continue today.

Nature 565, 257 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07830-y

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