How to land that perfect internship, fellowship or scholarship

by Michael Ickowitz 

Something that all successful fellowship and internship participants have in common is the experience of submitting an application and ultimately being selected by a research mentor. However, their success isn’t a well-guarded secret. With the right strategy, you can also find, apply to and land the perfect research experience. In this article, we’ll outline how to find the right opportunities, discuss ways to identify your resources, and provide tips to help you prepare your application.

Target opportunities and develop a plan
There are several career-focused search engines that allow you to search for opportunities by using keywords and location. Unfortunately, some search engines can produce large numbers of outdated and/or already-filled positions if they are not well maintained. Zintellect, an online application system for Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education research opportunities, provides access to hundreds of opportunities. The system allows applicants to complete a general profile with common questions among all programs. Once the profile is complete, applicants may apply to specific opportunities available in the system by answering a few questions specific to a particular program. In Zintellect, applicants can customize their references, résumés, and responses based on each opportunity to which they apply.   

Another strategy for finding fellowships or internships is to use social networking sites to develop professional connections and monitor research appointment opportunities. Follow recruiters and research organizations on Twitter, like them on Facebook, and strategically join LinkedIn groups that complement your area of study. 

Use your coaching team
You don’t have to go at this task alone. Before you begin your search, be sure to employ the expertise and resources of your coaching team: your faculty advisor, your university’s career services office, and any of the recruiters who visit your campus. Each coach brings a unique perspective and may make suggestions for you to consider in your application process.

  • Faculty advisors. These individuals are knowledgeable about the experiences that others have successfully applied for in the past. They can also help connect you to alumni or colleagues who might have opportunities available.
  • University career center. This on-campus resource has a wealth of opportunity postings and a number of professionals who are invested in your success. Your career counselor is likely aware of recurring opportunities and their application timelines.
  • Recruiters. Take advantage of all career fairs hosted at your university. Recruiters have first-hand knowledge of opportunities, what they are looking for, and even which opportunities have yet to be announced. Once you decide to apply, a recruiter might share valuable information such as timelines, technical contacts and helpful application tips.

Prepare and construct your application
Your application consists of essential pieces, put together the right way. Think of an application as your first task in your new role, indicative of what a research mentor might expect in the laboratory. A great application can get a mentor excited about bringing you on board to their team. Just the same, applications that do not meet stated requirements, or that contain errors, usually are eliminated quickly. As such, make a list from the opportunity description of all of the required pieces and their preferred characteristics. Check them off as you assemble them to complete an application package.

A resume and cover letter is usually required, and your university career center likely offers a review service to make sure that these documents are error-free and read well. In preparing your resume and cover letter, you should gather as much information as you can about the host facility, the laboratory and the mentoring scientist. What you learn may shape the content of your resume and cover letter, and doing so will highlight your knowledge and interest in the position.

Reference letters provide insight into your abilities, work habits and interactions with others. The best reference letters do not necessarily come from those in a high position, but rather those who know you well and who genuinely enjoyed working with you. If you need a reference, your research advisor is in a position to be your greatest advocate. A second reference might be another faculty member or a former employer if you have one.

As you prepare to submit your application, read the instructions carefully and make sure that your application contains all of the correct pieces and in the right format. Be sure you use any preview features to check for text or format errors. Finally, make sure that you actually submit your application. Most systems will send a confirmatory email, but check with a recruiter if you are unsure.

Keep in mind that it takes some time for recruiters to organize materials, schedule review meetings and conduct a thorough review. Typically, a few weeks will go by before you know if you have been selected or short-listed. Most organizations will let you know one way or another of the result, but it is OK to contact the recruiter to check in on the process. A professional recruiter will appreciate your interest in the position, and perhaps if this particular position does not work out, they might remember you for another. If you are not selected, keep your chin up and start the process again until you have accomplished your goal. There’s something out there for everyone who wants it!

About the Author
Michael Ickowitz, a former ORISE science education project manager, serves as senior manager for international recruitment and market development (North America) for the University of New South Wales. His research is focused on government investments in the development of future scientific workforce and innovation capacities, as well as the measurable relationship between these investments and resulting economic and societal impacts. He has extensive experience in scientific workforce development planning and securing project funding from both government and industry partners. Michael holds a master’s degree from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and is pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology with a concentration in political economy with a statistics minor.