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I visited Harvard during my summer break and got paid for it. Here’s how.

- By Varuni Sarwal

I visited UCLA during summer 2018 and Harvard during summer 2019 as an undergraduate researcher. These experiences were life-changing for me, both personally and professionally, and made me realize that I loved doing research and wanted to stay in academia. The most common question I get asked is how I afforded this as an international student. My answer takes most people by surprise: I was paid a stipend that not only covered all my expenses but left me enough savings to apply to graduate school. Here’s a step by step guide on how you can do the same:


1. Get lots of research experience at your home university

Research experience is the key, and what would be a better place to start than your own university! Talk to professors after class about their research, visit them during office hours and join your university's tech clubs. During my freshman year, I joined a bunch of tech clubs at IIT Delhi and a professor’s lab. Halfway through my sophomore year, I had co-authored a research paper, won a grant and a research award, programmed a super cool robot and won a bronze medal in the iGEM competition at MIT!

2. Identify an area that you are passionate about

Research experience in different areas coupled with coursework will soon make you realize that there’s a particular domain that excites you the most. For me, it was the intersection of Computer Science and Biology; I loved coding and Biology gave meaning to the problem. Once your area is (somewhat) fixed, try to get more experience in that area at your university. Both steps 1 and 2 are interrelated, research will help you identify your area of interest, and more research in the area of your interest will give you more clarity about what you like.

3. Build a strong CV

Once you have enough research experience, a strong CV will automatically follow! Needless to say, maintain a strong academic record alongside research, and bolster your CV with social work and extra-curricular activities. I was rank 3 in my department and was involved in a number of cultural clubs and social service organizations. Now, you are ready to fire!

4. Cold email professors/ Apply to programs

There are two major ways of getting an internship, through research internship programs and through cold emailing. This is a sheet that lists research internship programs worldwide for Indian citizens. Applying to a program is pretty straightforward, and funding is guaranteed. However, since some universities like Harvard do not have any programs for Indian citizens, cold emailing can be a useful strategy.

Here are some tips for cold emailing (A word of caution: do NOT send ill-informed and generic emails. Professors hate that!). Search for professors whose research is related to your area of interest and read a few research papers written by them, and see if their work excites you. If so, write them an email clearly mentioning that you want a summer research position in their lab and attach your resume. Explain why you want to work with them and mention a few accomplishments that you are particularly proud of. Keep the email short, to the point and personalized. Some professors may not have any open positions, may not have enough funds to support your visit, or may ignore your email completely; do not get demotivated! Once you get a positive response, figure out the logistics of getting a visa and go celebrate: It’s gonna be an experience of a lifetime! :)

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