Diya Binoy Joseph, PhD
Postdoctoral Researcher at UT Southwestern Medical Center
Congratulations! If you are reading this, you are most likely about to embark on a summer research internship or are interested in applying for one. In the former case, your hard work on applications has paid off and you are preparing for an exciting experience. If you are in the category of students interested in applying for an internship, congratulations on taking this step towards furthering your career! This by no means a lecture on proper research etiquette. These are just some thoughts I’ve distilled from my experiences and the experiences of my friends.
Start on the Right Note
You can enhance your internship experience by learning about your host lab and their research even before your internship starts. Look at their website and read papers published by the lab. Even if you don’t understand all the technical details, it will be a great way to get introduced to their research. This will also give you a base for discussions with your mentor once the internship starts.
It would really help you and your mentor to have an open discussion about expectations at the beginning of the internship. Your mentor is probably a graduate student or a postdoctoral researcher with a busy schedule and their own workload. Ask your mentor what hours they would like you to keep. Most labs don’t keep strict 9 to 5 working hours. Instead, lab members work early or late according to their personal schedules. Unless you have been asked to follow specific work hours, it is always a good idea to follow a 9 to 5 work day. As an intern, you will not be expected to work on weekends unless it has been specifically discussed with your mentor. As a newcomer to the lab, it is better not to work on expensive equipment without supervision. Take time off to explore on the weekends.
Be a Blank Slate
Even if you have previous research experience, approach the internship with an open mind. Each lab does things differently. It’s worth it to learn a new way of doing things.
Making mistakes in the lab is part of the learning process. Always ask questions and take notes to reduce your chances of making errors. To avoid accidents or breakages, ask someone in the lab to help you with expensive equipment. You don’t want to be remembered as that student who broke the expensive centrifuge!
At the beginning of the internship, ask your mentor how the lab keeps records of their experiments. Most likely your mentor will hand you a blank notebook that you will use to document your research. Populate the lab notebook with details of what you did each day and any other information that your read or looked up. This can also include things that came up in discussion with other members of the lab and also interesting research you hear at lab meetings and seminars you attend during your internship. Unpublished research is confidential and labs fiercely guard it. It is proper research etiquette to hand your lab notebook to your mentor when you leave.
Be Punctual and Organized
It makes a great impression to maintain regular working hours. It is sometimes too much to expect that your mentor will have work for you for the whole day. They still have to find time to do their own work. If your mentor is on a busy schedule, offer to observe and shadow them without disrupting their work. You could also schedule specific times to work with your mentor on your project. If you have downtime, offer to help them with small tasks like making solutions.
Make sure to attend lab meetings that you are invited to. Also keep an eye out for departmental and institutional seminars that you can attend. Go across the hall and talk to other labs about their research. Summer internships provide a great networking opportunity as you come into contact with several other interns. If you are interested in applying for a master’s or PhD at the institute where you are interning, take the opportunity to speak with the graduate school admissions office about the application process and requirements.
The Principal Investigator
Usually the principal investigator of the lab is not the person who is your direct mentor. You will probably get only a handful of opportunities to interact with the principal investigator of the lab during the course of the internship. Make the most of these rare opportunities by discussing the data you generated. It is very rare that a short internship results in a co-author credit on a manuscript, but it is not unheard of. It is advisable to put off asking about publications until you have put in a significant amount of work. At your last encounter with the principal investigator, tentatively mention your future plans and ask whether they would be willing to provide you with a letter of reference. Follow-up about the letter when you are preparing for the next step in your career.
To really impress, compile a report (like a short research paper) of what you did during the course of your internship. Divide the report into background, methods, results, conclusions and figures to resemble a scientific paper. This is a great way to showcase your scientific writing skills and will make sure you are remembered after the internship. You could also ask if you can give a short presentation of your work at a lab meeting. This would be a great ending to your internship and will give you a strong sense of achievement. Make sure you thank everyone in your lab and especially your mentor for hosting you.
Summer internships are a great opportunity to experience research in action. Try to use this opportunity to assess whether you would like to pursue research as a career. Going in to your internship keep an open mind and maintain a positive attitude. Good luck!
If you wish to contact Diya, her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.