I have to preface this post saying I am not, nor do I pretend to be, a STEM-superhero-guru type that has privileged knowledge or is trained in job searching.
I am, however, a little craftier than the average bear because my GPA is not very competitive, and the baseline tips they give college students isn’t what helped me personally.
Fortunately, in my college experience I have been blessed with some awesome opportunities to participate in research and some pretty cool internships. Many of my friends have asked how I ran into these jobs and how to even know where to look.
So, although I am 21 years old and probably don’t know what I’m talking about, here is how I gained research experience in my first three years of college:
- Talk to professors you’re interested in. Sophomore year I took an atmospheric-oceanic interaction class and genuinely enjoyed the stories and personal input my professor had to give on the subjects. I went into office hours and pestered him about how he decided to get into the field, his career path, his advice for a young mind, etc. Although he didn’t have any available research positions, he was able to recommend me to talk to a number of other faculty that shared similar interests. Since then I have done a similar thing for every class I have been extremely interested in. Even if it dosen’t amount to anything in the short term, establishing good relationships with faculty can lead to jobs in the long run, letters of rec, and a great resource for discussing future career or graduate school plans.
- Befriend grad students. Grad students are awesome! They are not very far from where you are right now and can be a little bit more real with you than a professor can. Similar to professors, they know who to recommend you speak to. What a grad student can provide that a professor cannot, however, is time. Grad students are busy, but they more often than professors sit down and chat about whatever is on your mind. They ALSO can provide a lot of help with your resume and writing a cover letter.
- Send some emails. One day my sophomore year I read through all the bio’s of the graduate students in my schools graduate environmental science program. I eagerly emailed about 20 of them (no joke) explaining how old I was, what they were doing that I had interest in, and my interest in gaining research experience or an internship. Maybe five emailed me back, but of those five, two genuinely appreciated my enthusiasm, and from then on they were my allies. Currently, I am working on a senior thesis that was almost entirely the idea of a grad student I befriended my sophomore year. She met with me a few times during the year, and as she got to know my interests better, she suggested I model an equation established in a previous paper she had written.
- Don’t be a stranger. When you have a good conversation with a professor or grad student, remember to at least write down your name, email, and interests on a post it and if it seems appropriate, hand it to them when you leave. OR you can send a follow up email within the next day or so thanking them for their time and mentioning your contact info in case any opportunities arise. Anytime you see someone you have received guidance from around campus, give them a wave or have a little conversation if you have the time. Don’t be weird, even if you think they don’t remember you, they probably do.
- Use your department advisors. More often than not, department advisors have a pretty good idea of what is going on with large internship offers, professors looking for undergraduate help, etc. Many majors offer an independent research class- talk to your advisor about how it works and what previous students have done in the past.
- Check your email. Most departments and majors at UCSB have a mass email list and this is frequented with weekly research opportunities. If you get those use them. This tip is almost too obvious to mention
- Use connections. Major key. Although it may seem unfair, its true that connections have a lot of weight when you’re looking for a job, no matter the field. My mom mentioned to me that my dad had made software for a clean energy company in Denmark and that I would be interested in their work. Six months later I am about to leave for Copenhagen to work for that very company! Even if what you have connections for might not be explicitly what you’re interested in, something is better than nothing, and I believe you learn a lot from any job. Go for it!
- Look at small companies. This may be more stem applicable, but a lot of small startups are always looking for interns. It may take an intense amount of google-ing, but you may find some better opportunities than just searching “internships near me”
- Consider international opportunities. Obviously, this tip requires a little more desire for adventure. If you are set on gaining a lot of experience, however, going abroad to work is an option not many people consider. It also shows a lot of initiative if you are willing to spend a summer in another country just to work.
A couple final notes- Don’t worry about your GPA. Obviously try to have the best GPA possible, but don’t let that discourage you from real hands on experience! You can do it!! My GPA is terrible if that makes you feel any better! Learn how to shake a hand, and say proper pleases and thank you’s. Finally, don’t be discouraged if people don’t reply or show any mutual enthusiasm. Professors are busy, grad students are too. It takes a lot of reaching out to find opportunities but the search in and of itself is a great learning opportunity.
Good luck in your academic endeavors!