Quick Help with Finding a Research Internship

The idea of devoting this episode of my regular writing to the topic of gaining practical scientific experience during your studies in the form of an internship was inspired by a recent email I received from an aspiring young physicist.

In the body of this email lied the question of how to proceed in the search for a short-term (summer) placement in the field of theoretical physics. What followed was my very detailed, honest answer, which would immediately discourage many from such desires. (If you happen to be interested, you can also contact me and I will be happy to provide you with the step-by-step instructions.) If I omit the discouraging example from theoretical physics, which is specific in its complexity, and I instead try to move to a more general playing field, I can present you with some unwritten rules and recommendations that will undoubtedly help you secure an interesting research opportunity.

We must first distinguish what such an opportunity could be; whether the opportunity is advertised or what I like to call proactive. The major advantage of any advertised opportunity is its linearity and outlined application procedure, therefore one does not need to be terribly creative during this process, which could be attractive to some. However, the major disadvantage may be the resulting competition arising from a larger pool of potential candidates, or the lengthy recruitment process, which may require a cover letter, letters of recommendation, interviews, etc.

The second option is more interesting, as one tries to find an opportunity that may not yet exist in the scientific job market. This method consists in establishing direct contact with the person of interest (e.g. a professor whose research you find intriguing), most often via email. This method is, of course, more laborious; on the other hand, it can open the door to cooperation with someone who would not advertise it themselves, yet simultaneously would not be dismissive of affordable, proactive, cheap labour. At the same time, it is possible that you can completely avoid competition by utilising this method, as you may often find yourself to be the only candidate or simply be the first one to come and thus be served.

In both cases, it is desirable to carefully study the details of the project you are applying for so that you can adjust your application accordingly, or in the second case your first email you send, which also serves as a de facto cover letter, although it may not be as extensive. In such an email, it is advisable to be rather brief, to show at least elementary understanding of the research area, even perhaps to suggest or outline the topic of future cooperation. I would also recommend attaching your (academic) CV. The better tailored your email, the better your chances of receiving a reply; only a handful of people will ever react to the so-called cold (generic) emails.

The last necessary ingredient for success (apart from a stroke of luck) is tenacity. It is quite normal that for any number of emails only a fraction will yield a reply, and only a fraction of those replies will indicate interest in possible cooperation. Do not be afraid to take a little risk along the way or to get out of your comfort zone; from my own experience, I can say that it is always rarer to be handed a good opportunity than to later on be able to take advantage of one. Sometimes it is better to learn to chew on a bigger bite than to go hungry.

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