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Maximizing Your Summer Research Experience​

Although undergraduate research experience is challenging to obtain for many students, it has arguably become a soft requirement for both health professional schools and research-based graduate programs. Even more challenging, however, is maximizing your experience once you accomplish the first step of joining a research team. In this article, we discuss some insights on how to create a meaningful summer research experience for those who have been accepted into a structured summer research program – sharing insights from a current medical student, a Ph.D. candidate, and the director of the National Institutes of Health Amgen Scholars summer research program.

Set your goals early with your mentors and principal investigator

Before beginning your summer research experience, it is crucial to reflect on what your research, career, and personal goals are to effectively shape your pathway through your research opportunity. Within the first few conversations with your research team, you should establish what your goals are and make sure they align with the group’s expectations for you. For example, you may be looking to present your research at a conference or contribute to a formal manuscript/report. On the contrary, you may be looking to gain exposure to a new topic that you hope to study further without investing significant time into creating posters and papers. Regardless of what camp you fit in, having a candid discussion about these aims in advance prevents conflict later down the line and ensures a more meaningful experience.

Whether you are a first-time researcher or already have research experience, you may want to attend a health professional or research-based graduate program. Letting your mentors know of these goals will allow them to shape the advice they give and the way they structure your experience. Additionally, informing supervisors that you are thinking of asking them for a letter of recommendation before the conclusion of your research is also important. It allows for more careful recognition of your qualities in a direct work environment and, thus, a stronger endorsement of your candidacy.

Finally, you may have other summer commitments while conducting research, such as volunteering, employment, and vacation. These other obligations should be clearly established with the research team in advance so that they can plan your research workload around your capacity. Some institutions strongly discourage these side obligations so you can get the most out of your summer opportunity.

Taking advantage of the institutional network at your summer research experience

Although being a productive researcher is certainly a priority during the summer, it is arguably just as crucial to expand your network. Doing so can lead to longitudinal career path guidance, valuable advice around applying to graduate programs, and post-graduation career opportunities.

It is important to recognize that your network extends far beyond your primary research mentor as soon as you begin your research experience! Start by speaking to the staff and leadership of your program. As they will naturally be well-connected with the research community at your institution, they are particularly well-equipped to match you with mentors whose career paths may match up with your goals. Additionally, they can provide you with advice on networking strategies. It is important to branch out by seeking advice and guidance from researchers outside your immediate colleagues. Often, talking to people in other disciplines may help you better identify career development opportunities and understand the various career pathways.

An important strategy for successful networking is the informational interview. Informational interviews can help you explore a wide range of career opportunities, and their primary objective is to seek career-related information, not a job. A typical informational interview may take 20-30 minutes and can take place in person, via email, or virtually. During the interview, your role is to ask questions that will help gain insights into their career and professional journey. Therefore, the focus should be on your interviewee’s position, background, career trajectory, and advice. Your interviewee may also be able to put you in touch with other professionals who could provide further guidance on your career goals. Conducting informational interviews even at your home institution can lead to the development of meaningful relationships and new opportunities! We present some resources on informational interviewing and networking, courtesy of the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education, at the end of the article.

Although our discussion around networking might sound intimidating at first, networking is easier than it seems. The start to great relationships can be based on a cold email, a conversation after a lecture, or even a chat in your institution’s cafeteria! You might be better at networking than you think. In fact, speaking to your friends and family on its own is networking- all you need to do now is change the angle of your discussions slightly to meet your professional goals.

Taking advantage of the non-research related opportunities at your institution

You don’t have to only do research in the summer! Regardless of what your intended career path is, there will likely be opportunities for you to broaden your experience. Having an effective plan for how you want to tackle those opportunities will be important.

When you get started, you may gain access to internal educational resources such as self-paced courses, career development modules, and/or technical workshops. Take advantage of these resources, as the benefits may extend beyond your time as a summer student. For example, one of the authors (SZ) took a self-paced data analysis course that was free and open to people with an institutional log-in. Additionally, he met with education support staff to learn about various funding mechanisms for pre-doctoral students and other opportunities like scholarships. While doing so, he was able to ask a career development professional to critique his CV. Finally, you can learn a lot by engaging in departmental events and activities. For example, you may be able to join departmental meetings or retreats where research ideas are brainstormed and evaluated. SZ joined departmental meetings and discussions on study proposals that helped his critical evaluation and feedback skills.

For those who are exploring healthcare careers, there may be opportunities to shadow a variety of specialties at your institution (and not just your primary mentor). Shadowing in a research environment may be an especially useful and unique opportunity as you decide whether an academic medicine career might be right for you. Additionally, other, more non-conventional clinical experiences might be interesting to you as well. For example, you may have the opportunity to attend Grand Rounds, where you can see research (and that of your team!) applied to patient care. A valuable experience I had in a clinical research internship was taking part in antimicrobial stewardship rounds, where I spoke to physicians across the hospital about appropriate and safe antibiotic use. These are just some examples of interesting clinical opportunities you can participate in while at your research internship – talk to your research mentor and program leadership about how to take part in them or create your own, depending on your interests! More likely than not, your mentors will give you the time and space to pursue these opportunities.

Your host institution may organize career panel talks or workshops for early-career researchers. Career talks are a good opportunity to understand how the panelists have progressed through their own careers and what advice they may share for people interested in pursuing similar careers. Career workshops are also a good opportunity to learn about navigating, searching, and applying in a “hands-on” manner. Usually, such career events are specific to an industry/discipline, however, many perspectives and career-building skills are transferable. So, even if these events are not exactly a match for your interests, you can gain a lot of insight and skills by listening to how early career researchers developed their careers.

Every summer research experience is unique, so work with mentors on a plan that will address what is most important to you as a future researcher.

Enjoying the program, community, and the city you are in

As SZ and I learned, becoming friends with your program colleagues is a life-changing experience. Throughout the summer (and beyond), your peers will be your greatest support system. Additionally, they may also have many of the same career aspirations and interests as you and could even be your future colleagues and collaborators! With that said, it is just as important to have fun with your new friends this summer! To do so, taking advantage of the city you’re in will be crucial.

In your first week of the program, you should speak to your mentors and program leadership about available unique activities to do in your city that might be hard to do elsewhere! These activities with your cohort can help build lasting connections with your colleagues. With colleagues, SZ and I organized visits to state parks, cultural fairs, and sports games which were welcomed opportunities to get to know each other outside the lab. You may also want to join organizations in your institution, and the city you live in that revolve around your passions. Whether it be sports, music, hiking, or video games- there will probably be something for you! I was able to join a volleyball group while at the NIH and continue to talk to my teammates even to this day. Building a network directly outside of research can make the summer more fun in its own ways! On a more serious note, your institution and city might have a medical school, graduate school, or summer career fairs. SZ and I quickly became aware of these opportunities upon arrival to our summer research program, allowing us to gain significant information about our intended career paths.

Burnout and resilience

We all do our best work when we are feeling well, both physically and mentally. The COVID-19 pandemic, global turmoil, and national crises have increased the stress and anxiety we are all experiencing. It is important to use the available resources to manage your stress and cultivate mental/physical health and well-being. Take advantage of wellness events and opportunities offered by your host institution. These can range from small group discussions on managing stress to larger affinity groups that meet for social activities. Journaling, trying new hobbies, and exercising are flexible ways to stay mentally and physically well. One-on-one counseling sessions can also be helpful for more specific advice and guidance on managing stress, anxiety, and depression. Ultimately, you should take advantage of wellness resources that work best for you. While summer research experiences are exciting and busy, they can also be challenging and overwhelming. Taking advantage of the resources available will help you deal more effectively with such challenges and can lead to a more successful and satisfying training experience. At the end of the article are some helpful resources, courtesy of the NIH, to get you started.

Conclusions

In summary, partaking in a summer research program is an excellent experience for any undergraduate student, regardless of future career path! To have the most meaningful experience possible, it is important to approach your experience with a strategy. We hope that our guidance will be helpful as you continue to reach your research and career goals!

National Institutes of Health Resources

Becoming a Resilient Scientist Series

Mental Health & Well-Being of Biomedical Researchers Series 2023

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