Skip to main content

Students must know: Undergraduate research programs are available and valuable

This content was produced in partnership with Charvet Laboratory.

Getting ready to enter college for the first time, or already in an undergraduate program? Listen up, because this is definitely something you’ll want to know about and consider. To have a vibrant and successful career in any field — health, science, technology, you name it — you’ll need to build some hands-on experience, even in college. That’s tough to do, because after all, how can you earn the desirable experience without a degree, or, well, other experience? That’s where internships play a major role. They allow you to get involved with an active or ongoing project, usually in the field you’re studying. With an undergraduate summer research internship, you’re typically grappling with a problem that you’d encounter in the real world, and in your field of discipline. However, the entire time you’re guided by several mentors. They help you work through the problem or task, sharing their expertise, and making you all the better for it — you’ll graduate with the hands-on experience that many potential employers request these days!

The best part is that they’re incredibly accessible. In fact, there are so many undergraduate research programs, widely available across the United States, it’s guaranteed there’s one close to you. Many programs even offer paid internships throughout the year and in the summer, so you’re building problem-solving skills, enhancing your communication abilities, and getting the experience you so badly need to enter competitive programs, and eventually secure more advanced degrees. For example, Delaware State University hosts a summer neuroscience program for undergraduate students. Students work in the laboratory with experienced researchers over the summer, and present their research towards the end of the program at a symposium. It sounds fantastic, right? So, then why aren’t more students participating in these kinds of programs? Simply because they are not well-known, and sadly, this information is discovered by many students when they’re already about to graduate. We’re going to change that here and now. We’re going to unveil a hidden curriculum that affords a diverse and wide-reaching opportunity for new students! Keep reading to learn more about some of the programs that are out there, and what you can do to discover new opportunities in your area — and at your college.

Learn More

College research internships can build your career before you’ve even started

Undergraduate research program with student and mentor working in lab.
Students study protein and gene expression to identify the cause of diseases.

Called Summer Undergraduate Research Programs, or SURPs, these opportunities have many benefits to offer students. For starters, they give you valuable hands-on experience that you’ll need when entering the workforce. Before that, they’ll give you a boost on your academic résumé, giving you more opportunities for graduate and medical programs later. Admissions committees consider whether students have participated in internships, as it’s a criteria for entry into graduate or medical programs. A lot of the programs are available as paid internships, so you’re still making a livable wage while building your career.

Summer research projects are your best bet, but applying to them may not seem as straightforward as it should be, especially when you don’t even know they exist. Various institutions and universities across the world — not just the country — seek out undergraduates for eight- to 12-week programs. Many of them take place at an active laboratory or clinical institute, under the direct supervision of a local research team who’s currently practicing in the field. It means that if you get in, you’re working alongside professionals from your field of study before you’ve even built a career for yourself. So, you’ll have a very strong foundation for the rest of your academic career and beyond.

How to apply for SURPs

Undergraduate researcher working in student lab for summer project.
Students may participate in many aspects of experiments, like the preparation of solutions for biological experiments.

For anyone wanting to know how to apply to SURPs, the trick is to plan ahead. Applications for summer programs are typically due the winter before, and that’s when they’ll open up to potential candidates. You need to be ready to apply, with the correct information, before that time comes. Application requirements vary from SURP to SURP, so you’ll need to pay attention to what’s requested for the project you’re interested in. That said, normally, you’ll be asked to provide the following, or something comparable:

  • A cover letter or personal statement
  • Your current CV
  • The university academic transcript for where you’ve been accepted
  • Referee forms or information

Some of these requirements are easy enough to understand, like the cover letter or personal statement. Much like you would when applying for a job, you’ll want to provide context for your application. Why do you want the opportunity and why does it interest you? What are you hoping to achieve?

You can get your academic transcript from your university portal or by talking to a guidance counselor or initial contact at the university — if you haven’t started yet you’ll need some extra help here.

Finally, the referee forms are, as you might expect, for solid references from peers, contacts, and sometimes even teachers. Each SURP program is going to be asking for something different, so pay attention before acquiring these materials. In most cases, referees will be contacted in some way.

Student researcher looking at samples in laboratory.
It’s common to use a microscope in the laboratory to study and assess experiment results.

You can apply to more than one SURP at a time, and frankly, you should absolutely do so because they are very competitive. If you get accepted into multiple programs, you have plenty of time to decide which opportunity you’d prefer, and for any that you turn down, there is always a list of alternate candidates. There’s no reason not to apply to everything you might want.

Here’s a quick checklist of what else you should do before applying:

  • Mind the admissions criteria and ensure they’re met
  • Pay attention to application and project deadlines
  • Apply to SURPs that best match your discipline and area of study
  • Reference the program structure and timeline as they vary
  • Some programs require you to meet or contact supervisors before the start date

How to find potential SURPs?

Charvet Laboratory wants the word out: undergraduate research programs are the way.
Typically, students discuss results with a mentor and brainstorm new ideas related to the topic.

While we’ve covered the benefits, how to apply, and what’s required, we have yet to discuss how to find potential opportunities. Fortunately, there are many places you can go for support, including contacts to turn to if you want more information. For example, you can always ask faculty at your institution about these programs.Many faculty have office hours in college, which is a time when students can drop in to ask faculty about the course content, internships, and general career advice. Many faculty know about active opportunities, and they can also recommend good ones to match your personality and talents — if they know you well enough.

Furthermore, nearly all universities and institutions host SURPs — it’s just a matter of knowing where to look. While most have dedicated web pages listing out the opportunities and requirements, it’s still a great idea to get in touch with counselors, professors, and other faculty at your school if you have any questions.

Some great lists are hosted by the University of Alabama’s undergraduate student research listings, Auburn’s undergraduate student listing, and the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) page.This work was created in partnership with the Charvet Laboratory for Developmental Neuroscience Research, at Auburn University, which generates translational tools for the biomedical community (Translatingtime.org), and provides research opportunities for students at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Be sure to check all of your local universities as well, not just the school you’ll be attending. Remember to apply to as many opportunities as you can, and good luck!

Learn More