So, where do I start?
Long long ago in a land far far away… blah blah blah. Okay, let me get straight to the point, it was early January and I knew I was screwed! A lot of people I knew had already gotten confirmations for their summer research internships abroad through programs like MITACS, DAAD, SN Bose and the likes – a good chunk of these people had had their applications reviewed by me before submission. I had applied to most of these programs with a decently good profile and nothing seemed to work out for me. I was truly in a ‘3 Idiots’ situation – it hurt more to know that people I helped had gotten into great places, more than it did knowing that I didn’t get in anywhere yet. Further, it was only a matter of weeks before the last few deadlines would pass, and I would be left only with options in India.
Fast forward to May – I was interning at Caltech, Pasadena and living a happily-ever-after-fairy-tale-life (literally, I even went to Disneyland)! Too bad I had to give away the climax at the start, but I thought it would be good motivation and would also reinforce the Disney motto – you go through hardship and come out triumphant! To be honest, that’s pretty much how every Disney movie ends. So as long as you can live with that, you should also be able to live with this. Anyways, back to the topic.
Applying for research internships can be hard.
Given that there is no governing cell in insti, everyone is literally on their own trying to figure out the when’s, where’s and how’s of applying for research internships. Most of the commotion around research internships begins around August, around the time when people start preparing for internships in general. People considering research internships are usually confused if they should register for the normal internships at all.
I was among those brave knights who decided to risk it all and not register on the internship portal.
It didn’t occur to me as bravery back then because I thought I had a solid plan to get a research internship. I had already tried and failed to get one the year before (i.e. in my sophomore year) but I knew of all the programs that I could apply to relatively well. I was also better prepared this time to face the dragon once again.
I stayed back in the summer after second year working on a project in insti. The goal was to have some good progress in a focused area – thereby justifying my inclination towards doing research in that area. Also, I spent some time with my advisor listing some good labs and professors I could write to. I talked to professors who I took courses with – I didn’t explicitly ask them to refer me, but I did ask them which labs were doing good research in my field of interest. Everything had been set up well by August and I sent a few emails to professors at universities in the US.
Two weeks in, I get the first good news – a professor at Caltech is interested in taking me in through the SURF program!
He asked me to get in touch with him in December when he would help me come up with the project proposal for the SURF application. My life was set but I decided to apply to other programs as well just to be safe. All these programs needed recommendations so I thought it would be a good time to experiment with recommenders. This would help me shortlist the best recommendations for SURF and for grad school later on.
Come September, the applications for MITACs, DAAD and SN Bose opened up. These programs have subtle differences in application procedures – DAAD requires you to have an approval from a professor beforehand, MITACs doesn’t need prior approval from a professor – you just apply through their portal and select projects that you are interested in. SN Bose usually prefers that you have a professor in mind so you can shape your application accordingly. I decided to apply to SN Bose and MITACs and skip DAAD because my field of interest was predominantly better in the USA.
December arrives and I’m excited to email my Caltech professor again to get started on my application. I emailed him once – he didn’t respond. I emailed him one more time after three weeks – still no response. At around this time, the results for SN Bose and MITACs came in and I got neither of them. I was distraught! This wasn’t exactly the scenario I was looking at.
I frantically started looking for other programs with deadlines at around this time and later. I applied for Purdue’s PURE and a few research programs in Japan and Singapore (NTU and NUS).
By now it’s two weeks to the SURF deadline and I had completely given up on it. One morning, however, my fairy godmother finally decided to grant me my wish – I got an email from my professor at Caltech asking me to get in touch with his Post-Doc and start working on the project proposal! To say that I did a Mickey Mouse happy dance after reading the email would be an understatement! In the following weeks, I worked through the application and submitted all the essentials and lo behold – I was awarded the Caltech Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship!
In the months following this I would often ponder on whether all the preparation I’d done for research internships really mattered – It does look like I was mostly lucky.
I had done a lot of research projects (surely not for the sake of getting an internship), had a fairly high GPA, maintained some good co- and extra-curricular credentials and planned all the professors I wanted to apply to almost a year in advance. Turns out it did matter!
My advisor coincidentally knew the professor I was applying to at Caltech and wrote an email to him when he got to know I was applying to him. This reinforced my credibility much more.
Furthermore, one of my recommenders also knew this professor at Caltech and so that was icing on top of the cake.
Adding to that, all the rejections from the other programs helped me format my SOP better for my SURF application; even when you think you have everything ready there always scope for improvement.
I also considerably improved in emailing professors from sending generic spam emails where you just change the name of the professor to actually taking the time out to research about a professor and send emails with a more personal touch. All this has surely come handy while applying for grad school.
I guess to sum it up in Disney style, I had amassed all the ingredients in the process of applying for research internships and all it needed was a little spark of magic to come together!
About the author:
Somayajulu Dhulipala graduated with a BTech from IIT Madras in 2018. He is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering at MIT. His research currently revolves around interfacial engineering to make low friction surfaces. In his spare time he takes pleasure in music, adventure sports, traveling, art and astronomy.