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I am currently exploring the possibility of participating in a summer internship. While researching, I've noticed that many internships offered by universities last for approximately two months. This duration seems quite brief, especially in an academic research context where significant results often require extended periods of investigation and study.

Given this, I am curious to understand the perspective of the host universities and professors regarding these short-term internships. What are the perceived benefits for them in offering such brief research opportunities? It seems unlikely that substantial academic results or contributions to ongoing research projects can be achieved in this limited timeframe. Are these internships designed more for the educational benefit of the students, or do the host institutions and professors have specific expectations or objectives that they aim to fulfill through these programs?

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6 Answers 6

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This will depend on the exact situation, but I suspect that in most cases these internships will be mainly seen as an educational activity. The expected value of the research output from the intern will often be negative: Even if an intern will work for free, it still needs to be instructed and supervised by someone who is not free (from the point of view of the university). If the output from the intern is going to be used in real research, that output will again have to be checked (and probably completely rewritten) by someone who is not free. I think of ChatGPT as in intern producing lots of text. This says something about the quality of ChatGPT, but also something about the quality of the output I expect from interns. It will in many cases be cheaper and quicker to let that same work be done by a PhD student or post-doc. The expected educational benefits from an internship will in many cases be positive or very positive. If done well, it gives the interns an experience that is hard to give them at that level any other way. Even if the outcome is that the intern at the end of the internship decides that research is not for her or him, that is still a positive outcome: It prevents the situation where that student starts a PhD and after an x amount of time decides to quit.

An added bonus for the university is that you get to meet potential candidates for things like PhD programs.

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To add a bit to the answer of Maarten Buis, such things give students a "taste" of research, but not an opportunity for independent research per se. That taste can help students decide on their future direction, which is one of the goals of an undergraduate education.

Students in such programs may get a close up look at how research in the field is done and contact with serious researchers. It prepares them to go deeper, just as many undergraduate courses do. Professors get a chance to mentor good students and help them set goals. The actual contribution to the research may be small, but the contribution to the overall educational mission is larger. And the opportunity for personal growth can be huge. Think of it as an apprentice program for serious research.

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As others have noted, this is typically just part of the educational mission of the University. There can be benefits to the University however. If this is funded through a grant, then there is overhead money associated. A successful internship program sets a precedent which strengthens future grant, and especially center level grant applications, which again contribute to growth via both reputation building and generation of overhead funds.

The process also allows the university to look at high achieving students for potential graduate recruitment.

Finally, even though this is never the goal, you can end up with students genuinely contributing to research. Typically these are students who have already been active in research at their home institution and are highly motivated (usually the ones that end up becoming faculty one day). This is always a great surprise, but not expected.

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It seems unlikely that substantial academic results or contributions to ongoing research projects can be achieved in this limited timeframe.

You might be surprised what dedicated undergraduates can accomplish in 10 weeks.

I've found that with some planning and structure, I can almost always get more value out of an intern than work I put into scaffolding them. I've done this over years of both academic research and industry non research. Throughout the year I collect a list of sub projects to my work that are individually not critical, are simple enough for an intern, and could potentially have impact. By the time intern season comes around I usually have a menu of 6-10 for my interns to pick from and see what they can do.

One summer me and a colleague had so many of these "intern projects" on our NSF grant, we took on a dozen summer interns and their work was a great boon to the project as a whole.

And the interns are getting something out of it too as many here have stated. They might not be doing the most cutting edge of the work, but they're getting started. They aren't generating results that will get them published that summer (although it could potentially happen), but they are getting attribution for their contributions that can help with the next phases of their careers.

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Over the past 20+ years my groups at a US national lab have hired many student interns at both the undergraduate and graduate levels (and a few high school students, but that is another story). Since the students are constrained by the time between the end of the spring semester and the start of the fall semester (not to mention time to move here and back again), yes, they are usually 10 weeks or so on site.

There is some burden on the staff to have a project for the student, but there are always things that should be done but someone hasn't gotten around to doing quite yet. After someone has mentored a student a few times it actually gets pretty easy to plan the scope of a summer for the student. Now, each intern has their strengths and weaknesses, so being agile during the summer is necessary to revector if needed.

Usually though, any 'revectoring' is because interns have significant capability to amaze and overachieve. You make the mistake of underestimating what a good motivated student can accomplish in 10 weeks fulltime. Sure, they need to come up to speed in some areas (our ES&H training is extensive for example), but they often are quite smart and adaptable. For one student project last year we hoped they would help build some novel hardware and participate in the high voltage testing. They ended up taking over running the tester, identified some hardware and software issues, fixed them, and wrote some new data analysis routines to get a better, faster output. Both sides thought the experience was very worthwhile.

Now, what does the lab get?

  1. Many staff like to mentor and work with students. It is enjoyable to have them around - fresh eyes, fresh perspectives, good questions. Most of the staff did various internships when they were in school, so this is a way for them to give back, but also get stuff done.
  2. We get to identify talented students who are interested in the work we do. We can bring them back the next summer if they are good (and willing). If an undergraduate we can help them determine what grad schools to apply to, write letters of recommendation, and suggest what advisors to contact. If a grad student we may have relationships with their advisor, and may want to hire them fulltime when they are done.
  3. We build a pipeline of possible good hires in the future. Now, HR has complained on and off that the percentage of interns that we end up hiring is not very high. True, but most of the staff did internships somewhere, so we are helping the whole community not just ourselves. (For instance, I didn't do an internship here.)

I have no doubt that hiring student interns has been a net positive for my people, their projects, and for the lab overall.

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I had such a role (paid) one summer in my undergrad, but at a different university. This was in a physics research group, and what the group got was someone who could dedicate a few weeks to a fairly simple but time-consuming task, building a new experimental setup. The one busy technician couldn't set aside enough time, and there was no one else to take it on.

Such a short term role can often be paid from the scraps of funding at the end of a grant, so while the PI might prefer someone more experienced and capable, that's not likely to be an option.

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