Updated: Dec 29, 2022
I already had a vague idea of what I was looking for. I had gone more in depth into the courses being offered, beyond what was being taught in the classroom. This gave me a broader perspective. I had explored my areas of interest and mailed professors whose research piqued my interest. I got an internship in stem cell research, and this was convenient because I'd already done a project for a few months on campus in my 2nd year regarding stem cells. My internship's research work concerned asymmetric germline stem cell division in male Drosophila. I had a brief idea and was already interested in the topic.
One thing you need to keep in mind while mailing is that the professor you're mailing probably gets 10-15 such emails everyday. Cold emails won't make you stand out. Your email must also be personalized. Write the name of the professor at the beginning. Instead of mass mailing, spend more time emailing professors who you believe will accept you and whose field of study interests you. This is what I did. I sent around 800 emails and in each of them, I included one or two lines about what I liked about the research work of that professor, how I could contribute to their lab, and how my background fits into their research area. Lab web pages are a very resourceful tool to find out the research areas and open positions in a professor's lab. The people that do read your mail should feel that you've gone through their lab webpage, which is a basic necessity. Always conduct a self-analysis first. Usually, people expect professors to fund their stay and give you a stipend. For such a huge investment, they need to see that you're serious and committed and that you've already done work to explore the opportunities at hand. In my case, I fit into this as my internship was based on stem cells, as was my winter project at IITD.
If you fake anything on your CV, the professors will know within 5 minutes of the interview round. I didn't mention any extracurriculars in my CV. It's a waste of space, at least for research interns. Your people skills will be gauged in the interview, and I did tell them that I was a debating rep and journalist for BSP, but they're more concerned about your coursework, lab experience, and projects. They need to know you're inclined to research.
Experience and interactions
My internship's research work concerned asymmetric germline stem cell division in male Drosophila. For years, a pertinent question has been how the germline is maintained over generations and how stem cells remain stem cells. This was the broad outline of the project. My part was to provide mechanistic insight into this process. I had to design a tool to visualize unidirectional DNA replication at single-cell resolution. The workload wasn't much, and one great thing was that, as I was an undergrad, they didn't expect me to know much. 8-10 hours of lab work was pretty manageable for me. I spent my free time attending the summer seminars, lectures, and meetings, and ended up learning a lot from them.
As for challenges, it seemed extremely overwhelming in the beginning, but over the next few weeks, I settled in. The people are very understanding and are ready to teach you in case you don't know something.
You get to learn a lot of skills. More than these, I believe the soft experience is important. The exposure to the kind of research happening around the world. For my internship, the type of research was entirely different from the one I was used to. While ours is more focused on the engineering aspect, theirs was based on more fundamental, basic science questions. That was something I couldn't have explored over here.
The internship was also pivotal in deciding whether I actually wanted to pursue core research or not. It helped firm up my interest in research.
I would recommend beginning with a self-analysis to determine why a professor would invest in you. Build your skills. The mailing will be a very tedious and disappointing journey. You'll get very few responses and even fewer interested professors. Don't forget to apply to colleges where your seniors have already interned. Be patient, because it'll be a very long-drawn process, but don't be disheartened. It's entirely luck-based, so keep trying.
Interviewed by - Raavya Jain