Dreaming of a career in science? If yes, the top thing on your to-do list should be gaining experience. By demonstrating your ability to strive in scientific environments, you distinguish yourself from the rest of the competition. Also, given the fact that these jobs are substantial financial investments, potential employers look for recruits with a proven track-record for success (or at least a sincere attempt at success). The best way to put your foot in the door is by landing internships at research institutes or universities and there is no better time to begin than your summer holidays.
Convincing a professor to let you work in his/her lab can be tricky when applying for your first ever internship. This is where crafting a nice email comes in handy. To do this, let’s look at the whole thing from the perspective of a professor. Once logged in, a professor will probably look for specific things in their inbox such as emails from the university, collaborators and graduate students. All this will be buried within hundreds of emails from prospective interns/graduate students. Therefore, the key is to convey the essence of what you want to do as an intern during the minuscule attention span your email is going to receive. From my personal experience, the sweet spot is three paragraphs of two to four lines each. Here is a format that has worked pretty well for me:
Dear Prof/Dr. <last name>,
I am <name>, a student studying <degree> in <university>. I am looking to work on a research project over the summer and so I was wondering if you could potentially offer an internship position in your lab.
I am very interested in <a generic area of research like “infectious diseases”> and your research aligns well. I was especially drawn to your work on <be specific about techniques/research questions that interest you. You can get this information from reading the lab’s publications>.
I am a student of excellent academic standing with a GPA of <mention your GPA ONLY if you have a good GPA>. The lab courses in my degree have trained me in some basic techniques such as <mention two or three techniques, if relevant to the research in the lab>. To fund my internship, I will be applying to <fellowship/scholarship, if applying>. I strongly believe that an internship opportunity in your lab will go a long way in helping my scientific aspirations. I have attached my CV for your reference. Looking forward to your reply.
<Remember to attach a 1-2 page CV>
If you noticed, some of the lines on the generic email have been bolded. These are the lines that I think, make the biggest difference between a successful email and an email that gets ignored. It is important to note that a vast majority of emails that professors get are generic or as I like to call them- “carpet bombs”. These emails usually start with one of these – Respected Professor, Respected <Sir or Madam> or even worse, Respected Sir/Madam. This is followed by a variant of “I am interested in research. I want to work in your lab”. When a professor looks at such emails, I assume their reaction is something like this:
Addressing faculty by name and talking about what you actually like about their research are clear indicators that you are genuinely interested and not desperately spamming every faculty member in an institute. This is especially important if you’re looking to do your first internship, in which case your email and CV are the only things that a professor has to assess your competence. Since you are likely going to be sending emails off to several professors, it is completely normal to use a certain format. But it is essential that you make sure they are customized to match the specific focus of each lab. Once you complete your first internship, you can then leverage the experience gained to improve the success of landing your next internship and so on. So, good luck in the search for your first internship. Excelsior!
For information about how you can apply for internship funding, visit NGS Internship program.
Written By Manoj Rathinaswamy
Graduate Student at the University of Victoria