Area of Research:
Usually, people do a research internship in their second year, followed by a corporate internship in their third year, and at last, they have placements in their final year. I am pursuing a dual degree in Computer Science, which gives me an additional year to put in anything I want. I was always inclined to do research, and my second-year research internship ignited my interest more than ever; hence, I decided to again go for a research internship in my third year. Thus, I did an internship at Max Planck Institute for Software Systems (MPI-SWS) in Program Verification. I had heard about it and got a little exposure to it and its related areas in a previous course. The sole reason for pursuing a research internship was my passion for research. I would choose research over a corporate internship any day as I am also keen on further studies after graduation.
There are two ways to apply for a research internship; you either mail professors from particular institutes that overlap with your areas of interest or apply through University Research Internship Programs. While applying for this internship, I couldn't mail a lot of professors due to some unavoidable circumstances; thus, I started my application procedure a little later than when I applied for my second-year internship. I started applying to various programs as well. MPI has a centralized program of its own. The application procedure is simple, you fill in your credentials, provide your SOP, CV, find some potential supervisor you wish to work with, and provide the contact of someone who is willing to provide you an LOR. From there, they send your application to professors, and they take your interview later if shortlisted. So I surfed their website to find a supervisor according to my area of interest. Not every university has programs, so if you are interested in working for a particular university under a specific professor, then mailing is preferable. While programs are centralized and systematic, there is greater competition and limited seats. Additionally, while I was mailing for my second-year internship, a professor replied to my email saying that I should apply through the centralized program next year. Interestingly, this is the same professor I eventually ended up doing my third-year internship. So, having prior contacts surely helps!
SOPs vs Cover letters:
While applying for university research programs, you must provide your SOP (Statement of Purpose). The main difference between a cover letter and an SOP is that cover letters are mostly personalized for the concerned professor, whereas SOPs are personalized for the university or the Research Institute you are applying for. Also, SOPs are usually required in programs, while you need a cover letter while mailing professors. I would advise one to refrain from putting assignments as projects in an SOP. It doesn't leave a good impression. One can do it in their CV, though. It does not matter if you don't have past research experience in your interested area; what they look for is your interest in any program. I got my second-year internship without any prior experience in that area. They should not think that your SOP is a general SOP that you are sending for every program; it's better to personalize it for the institute. The same goes for Cover Letters -- when you are mailing your cover letter to any professor, it's better to personalize it for the professor.
What made you stand out?
Doing a research internship in my second year helped me gain some real insights into the research domain, and I learned a lot. The professor happily gave me a Letter of Recommendation (LOR) and motivated me to pursue my MPI research internship. Having an LOR helps in University programs, and so does seniority!
Challenges in the Online mode:
Since I had a research internship in my second year, I had a lot of expectations, like going to Singapore and having a lot of fun. When it all got transformed into work from home, everyone was disappointed. At that time, the pace of my internship was slowly growing as everyone was still trying to get used to the virtual mode of work. By the time I started my third-year internship, we had gotten used to the online work mode. I already had completed two semesters in an online manner. Hence, concerning working from home, I had a better experience in my third-year internship because maybe we got used to working that way.
The work environment:
The internship was three months long. It got extended during my semester as well. In the group that I worked with, we would have weekly meetings. The professor would keep two sessions per week where we just hung out and had informal talks, talked about our daily lives, and had fun. It was a mechanism to cope with the pandemic and other stress. Those sessions were the best part because I bonded with the Ph.D. students and the professor. I developed a good habit of keeping a log of everything I did because if someone continues my research, they should be able to understand my work and go ahead with it. I also had ownership of my work. Most of my time was spent brainstorming concepts and ideas or reading various research papers. The workload was manageable, given I was doing it during my summer break.
Key Takeaways and Suggestions:
If you are looking for a research internship for the first time, I would suggest you explore your interest in various research areas. People also work in core areas of other departments; there is no restriction like that. So you may want to read about different areas and shortlist some research areas that you like. While mailing, try to have your cover letters personalized. There are a lot of opportunities and professors out there. So keep mailing. Don't get demotivated. One or the other professor will show interest in working with you. Don't miss program deadlines; they have a little competition, but they have some guarantees. Keep mailing and applying in programs as well. Make it a habit to send emails regularly because once you break the cycle, it gets tiresome to start again. Send mails even if you don't get a reply; it might sometimes feel overwhelming and disappointing, but keep doing it regularly. By the time you have to start applying for Third-year internships, you probably will have a clear idea about your interests, and you can apply in a more focused manner. Just don't get demotivated or give up. Anyone can get a good research opportunity if they have the willpower and determination to work for it.
Interviewed by: Anukriti