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During the 2023 APS Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics, panelists shared tips on searching for summer opportunities.
By Liz Boatman | February 16, 2023
Credit: APS Physics
Undergraduate attendees at the 2019 CUWiP at Northwestern University.
As an undergraduate majoring in physics, what you do with your summers, especially after your sophomore and junior years, can be important if you’re planning to pursue graduate school or a career in the field. To help students, several of this year’s Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) offered workshops on exploring summer internships.
CUWiP — held annually — aims to increase the number of undergraduate women in physics, who currently earn 1 in 4 bachelor’s degrees in the field. Through workshops, plenary sessions, and networking events, CUWiP provides undergraduate women with the tools and community they need to succeed in physics.
This January, around 1,800 undergraduate women gathered at 15 regional locations across the U.S. and Canada to attend CUWiP. APS has been CUWiP’s institutional home since 2012, providing support for a growing number of conference sites; the 2023 CUWiP was one of the largest ever, and for many students, career and internship guidance was a key offering.
At the 2023 CUWiP at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, student attendees were coached on summer internships by five panelists, including Lindsay Buettner, university student program lead at Argonne; Kelly Garcia, doctoral student in engineering physics at University of Wisconsin, Madison; and Savannah Gowen, doctoral student in physics at the University of Chicago. Their advice is summarized below.
How do I choose between an internship versus a regular job?
“I think sometimes students feel like if they're in a regular job, they're doing something wrong,” says Buettner, but even “a regular job helps students build basic job skills — communication, time management, problem solving, leadership” — which makes working as a cashier or lifeguard, for example, a good starting point.
For more specialized skills, internships have an advantage. “Internships are really where you're going to build the technical skills related to your field,” says Buettner.
Garcia adds, “If you're applying to grad school, you definitely want to have at least one internship experience” to give your application the best shot at success.
Gowen notes another advantage of summer internships: If you’re a student from a small college, you can choose an opportunity that will give you a sense for what it’s like to be at a large research university, which can be helpful if you’re considering grad school.
How do I decide what kind of internship to pursue?
Ask yourself what your goals are, says Garcia, and frame your goals as concrete skills you want to have by the end of college. “Let your interests lead you,” she adds.
If you do a research internship this summer, you could try a private sector internship next summer, suggests Gowen, “so you get a little taste of both cultures.” An academic environment can be very different from a company’s.
Buettner echoes this. “An internship is a learning experience,” she says. “It’s like trying on different hats and seeing what fits.” You might realize you don’t like a certain subject as much as you thought. That’s okay. Next summer, you can try a different area of physics to see if it suits you better.
How do I search for internship opportunities?
“Leverage your college or university networks,” says Buettner. “Your career services office can help you prepare your résumé and help you with your job search.”
“Scour your local resources,” says Garcia, by “talking to your major advisor, your professors, and even your friends who might have already done research or had an internship.” Asking around can also help you find opportunities on your own campus.
If there’s a specific location you like, go directly to that school, company, or institute website and use its search tools, adds Gowen. Many national labs and companies have listservs you can sign up for, delivering opportunities directly to your email inbox.
Most internships branded as REUs (research experiences for undergraduates) are funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). “The NSF actually has a super convenient web page with a listing of all the host institutions and links to their various programs and coordinators,” says Gowen. You can browse thousands of NSF-funded REUs across the country.
What if I’m an international student?
U.S. government-funded internships, like REUs, are typically not available to international students. Instead, search for opportunities in the private sector or direct-paid research internships on college campuses.
Some international students might be interested in opportunities abroad, like in Europe. If so, focus your search on institutions and companies in your countries of interest. In fact, this is a great option for any physics student interested in experience abroad during college but lacking the curriculum flexibility to do a full semester or year abroad.
How do I put together a strong application package?
Buettner says to give yourself plenty of time to apply, including time to draft personal statements, get feedback, and revise them. And when you seek feedback, ask both a professor and someone outside the field, she says.
“That way, you have a content expert checking for details that are related to your major … [and] a non-expert who’s going to focus on the big picture, like readability,” says Buettner. “Remember, sometimes it’s an HR professional reviewing applications, not a physicist. They need to be able to understand your application too.”
“Always have a really strong letter of recommendation,” adds Garcia. In your first few years of college, focus on “developing good rapport with your professors — going to office hours, talking to them about your interests,” she says. This will help you feel more confident when you ask one of these professors for a recommendation letter. And be sure to “give your recommenders the minimum of two weeks to complete their letters,” reminds Buettner.
Importantly, Garcia says to make sure you “don’t underestimate yourself.” As you put your application together, focus on “knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are … Being able to articulate what you’re willing to learn,” she says. Gowen has another interesting piece of advice for your personal statement: “The point isn't to sound smart,” she says, but to “show who you are and how you can uniquely contribute to a scientific project.”
Liz Boatman is a staff writer for APS News.
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