Undergraduates considering a PhD: The value in summer research programs


Joseph Leshin
Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Research experience is strongly emphasized by many graduate admission committees. Fortunately, there are several ways to obtain research experience as an undergraduate. Students may volunteer as research assistants, conduct empirical thesis projects, or participate in summer research programs (SRPs). This article will focus on SRPs and the valuable opportunities they provide for students to gain research experience and develop important skills relevant in preparation for graduate school.

Identifying SRPs is easier than one might believe. For example, Google produces an extensive list of sources with searches such as “undergraduate summer research opportunities.” Several professional organizations also list available summer opportunities (e.g., the American Psychological Association: http://www.apa.org/education/undergrad/research-opps.aspx). In addition, college advisors may have information on existing SRPs. Choosing the right program, however, may be trickier than searching for them. Students should consider faculty’s summer availability (consider contacting them in advance), program start dates (whether they interfere with one’s spring quarter/semester), available resources (e.g., travel expenses), location (if deemed significant), and, above all, mutual research interests (Is there a faculty member present who shares your research interests?).

So, what are SRPs? These rigorous programs that last 8-10 weeks invite admitted students to conduct basic research at a research institution. The application process typically involves writing a personal statement, submitting college transcripts, gathering 2-3 letters of reference, and listing faculty members with whom one wishes to work. Applications are usually due in January and offers are made no later than April. Participating students are generally provided a stipend, travel expenses to the site, room and board, and professional development seminars. SRPs allow students to preview graduate student life, acquire new skills and knowledge, network with professors, graduate students, and undergraduates, and gain hands-on experience with work relevant to one’s area of interest. Ultimately, undergraduate research experiences increase understanding of how to conduct research, confidence in research skills, and awareness of what graduate school may be like (Seymour, Hunter, Laursen, & Deantoni, 2004; Lopatto, 2004; Bauer & Bennett, 2003).

Overall, SRPs seek to help transform driven undergraduates into promising future scientists. Therefore, the prime benefit from these programs might be the opportunity to conduct independent research. Student projects typically stem from larger research projects led by either the faculty or graduate student mentors, or both. Students may consolidate scientific literature, brainstorm investigative methods, collect and analyze data, and present research findings. Consequently, students are presented with opportunities to acquire new skills and knowledge: they may learn varying approaches to managing data, improve in their scientific writing, practice with experimental materials, develop language to best articulate research findings, and garner familiarity with existing theoretical and empirical information.

Furthermore, SRPs introduce opportunities to network. As interns at research institutions, students will have access to other researchers who may share similar interests or be able to offer helpful career advice. Seizing these opportunities to network with researchers other than the specific faculty member one is accepted to work with may lead to long-term professional relationships. Furthermore, pursuing contact with graduate students may be as auspicious as the connections established between interns and faculty members. Graduate students are useful sources of information. For example, they can provide insight into laboratories and faculty members and guidelines for balancing graduate and personal life since, after all, graduate school can be very stressful (Heins, Fahey, & Leiden, 1984). Notably, graduate students may be steps away from either post-doctoral fellowships or professorships, which may facilitate an incredible accessibility to added institutions and their scientists and laboratories.

Successful completion of an SRP can contribute favorably to a student’s graduate application requirements. SRPs almost always include Graduate Record Examination (GRE) courses for participating students. GRE instructors can assist students in identifying their weaknesses and strengths, reducing levels of test anxiety, executing an effective GRE-preparatory regimen, and, foremost, attaining the best possible score. In addition, summer mentors can be powerful references for graduate education. They can speak on behalf of the student’s abilities as a junior scientist, including one’s laboratory skills, problem solving abilities, motivation, and creativity. SRPs also abound with professional development seminars. Students are supplied with an understanding in writing an effective statement of purpose, methods to funding graduate school, tactics for selecting graduate programs, and practice for enhancing oratorical skills. These opportunities are meant to persist beyond the summer—to enrich the student’s readiness for the demanding, and rewarding, realities inherent in graduate training.

Finally, if for whatever reason a student begins to feel disappointed about a summer experience, I highly suggest contacting the program’s coordinator(s). Students need to keep in mind that mentors paly a large role in facilitating positive outcomes in research experiences (Hunter, Laursen, & Seymour, 2007). Students need to voice their concerns about any issue so they are met with the utmost attention.

I would like to end by stressing the importance in choosing a program that will support, foster, and satisfy a student’s academic curiosities and ambitions. There is no reason to believe that these programs expect or pressure students to make groundbreaking discoveries. To the contrary, I would argue they strive to create an environment that encourages learning. Conducting research is demanding by nature, but its outcomes—small or large—are undeniably gratifying.




Bauer, K. W. & Bennett, J. S. (2003). Alumni Perceptions Used to Assess Undergraduate Research Experience. The Journal of Higher Education, 74, 210-230.


Heins, M., Fahey, S. N., & Leiden, L. I. (1984). Perceived Stress in Medical, Law, and Graduate Students. Journal of Medical Education, 59, 169-79.


Hunter, A., Laursen, S. L., & Seymour, E. (2007). Becoming a Scientist: The Role of Undergraduate Research in Students’ Cognitive, Personal, and Professional
Development. Science Education, 91, 36-74.


Lopatto, D. (2004). Survey of Undergraduate Research Experiences (SURE): First Findings. Cell Biology Education, 3, 270-277.


Seymour, E., Hunter, A., Laursen, S. L., & Deantoni, T. (2004). Establishing the Benefits of Research Experiences for Undergraduates in the Sciences: First Findings from a Three-Year Study. Science Education, 88, 493-534.


Author Note

Joseph Leshin graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo as a Psychology major with a minor in Statistics and a concentration in Applied Social Psychology. As an undergraduate, he completed three summer research programs (University of California, Riverside, Stanford University, and University of California, Berkeley). He is currently completing a two-year post-baccalaureate research fellowship with the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, MD, focusing on neuroimaging methods to studying emotion. His research interests lie broadly in emotion-cognition interactions.