How to get a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, a SURF

Undergraduate Kai Jones loves research!

Undergraduate Kai Jones loves research!

If you aren’t going to change your life by studying at a biological field station, there are few better things to do with an undergraduate summer than research. One of the more interesting programs is called SURF, Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships.

This program requires some initiative. First, you have to find a laboratory doing research that interests you. Then you have to meet with the professor and plan out a research project. This project need be only a of couple pages, but it needs to be good. The rest of the application involves two letters of recommendation and a transcript, at least at Washington University in St. Louis. Other universities may vary slightly in their proposal requirements, but this advice on effective proposals should be generally useful, though it is too late for this year. Usually they are due in January or February.

Undergraduate Alicia Cañas pausing from counting.

Undergraduate Alicia Cañas pausing from counting.

What exactly should your proposal be like? First of all, it should be in your own voice. Avoid jargon. The driest of the set of proposals I just evaluated were full of large, undefined words, Latin ones when simple Anglo-Saxon ones would do. Don’t write a single word that you don’t understand. Don’t write a single word that doesn’t help explain what you want do do.

That leads us to the next big point. You need to make clear what you will do, what research questions your own personal research will address and possibly even answer. This is not the same as what the entire lab group does. Of course you need to make clear how your work fits in with the rest of the lab, but there is a difference. As I read some of the proposals, I could not tell what the student would do as compared to what the whole lab was doing.

OK, so far I’ve told you to write the proposal in your own voice, only putting in things you understand. I’ve also told you that  you need to frame the research in the context of the general questions the lab group asks, but make what you do a separate, small piece. What else? You must have a question that sounds cool and feasible. To do this, you need to understand the field to some extent, then choose a piece that is feasible, working with the help of your advisor. Perhaps you will plan to do more in subsequent years, but for now, tell us what you will do this summer and why it is important. You should have references, of course.

If you follow this advice, the proposal will sparkle with your own enthusiasm. It will be clear to reviewers who may not be very close to the research. We will rank it highly, for yes, we must rank them.

There are other ways of doing summer research, including NSF-funded REUs, for example. But that is for another time.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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