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Every now and then I receive an email claiming to be from some undergrad student in Math or Computer Science at an Indian university asking for a summer research experience in "my research group" (there is no such thing).

These emails all have a very formulaic structure. There always is a claim that the student read and very much enjoyed some paper of mine, but never any indication that this actually happened (ie no reference to stuff in the paper). In particular, these emails look like they could have been sent to dozens of people with a little bit of copy&paste. Attached are real-looking CV's.

Are these real students or this is some elaborate scam? If these are from real students, why do they think this could potentially work? Why India?

Edit: While I have only received emails like this from India, in the comments Tom Curch mentions having received some from China, too.

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    Has happened to me a couple of times, so it would be interesting to see the answer to this question (if there is one). – Alexandros Mar 15 '15 at 18:31
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    "I do not have any interest in undergraduate student interns. Emails from Indian Institute of Technology (or similar) students looking for an internship will be ignored." (See a-cubed.info/home.html) – user8661 Mar 16 '15 at 16:07
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    The Google summer of code and PhpMyAdmin get a lot of these, but they seem to be genuine people who seem VERY competitive, If one says "I know something" another chips in with "me too", it's also for really trivial things, like adding a print view. it'd be easy to do and not take a summer. – Alec Teal Mar 16 '15 at 22:11
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    I didn't realize until now that the originators of the spam, in some sense, are the Indian universities themselves. I find this surprising and a bit distressing. If faculty members really wanted their students to do internships abroad, why aren't they helping them out in some way? Certainly many faculty members at IITs and similar places are internationally renowned in their fields and have a network of connections they could exploit. Why do they leave it to their students to become spammers? – Pete L. Clark Mar 17 '15 at 6:37
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    It is possible that lot of desperate students just trying the number game. If there is a formulaic email one uses they may give it to each other, and use with small customization. – Greg Oct 24 '16 at 16:55
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I graduated from a premier Indian university more than a decade ago and have sent out such emails. Let me try to put this practice in context.

Like many universities around the world, Indian universities have a semester system and a three to four month summer break in-between. Many Indian universities (but not the IITs) have a compulsory summer internship that must be completed in the summer before the final year. These internships can be done either in industry or academia. Therefore, it is common for Indian students to apply for internships. Until the late 1990s, most students used to apply for such internships within India.

The situation changed in the late 1990s because a couple of European universities (EPFL for sure, but I think that there were others as well) started a summer internship program for Indian students (almost exclusively from the IITs). The primary reason was to attract Indian students for graduate studies; at that time most Indian students went to English speaking countries. I participated in such a program in the early 2000s.

These programs did not result in any mass emails. The department of the Indian university used to send a list of student CVs, and the department at the European school would select from that list.

However, once students realized that European universities accept students for internships, they started applying en mass. And most, if not all, of them got offers, typically from universities in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Spain, and Singapore; but also occasionally from the US and UK. (At least, this was the situation at my time). Initially, only IIT students were doing this; slowly everyone else also started applying.

At our time, some of us applied because we wanted to experience the research environment in Europe, others applied because they wanted a paid vacation. Some were meticulous in their search and wrote personalized letters; others simply sent out a form letter to everyone. My understanding is that most students (at least from IITs) still get such internships, so the practice continues.

Note that the universities which started this practice to attract Indian students were successful. They saw an increase in the number of students from IITs who applied for graduate studies. I have friends who went to study in a non-anglophone European country because someone had gone to the same university for an internship and had had a positive experience.

I don't know if more European universities have started this practice or not; but I know that recently Canadian universities (rather a Canadian funding agency) started a university internship program for international students from India, China, and Brazil.

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    Just for clarification: You are saying that (some/many) students successfully find interships using the (minimally - "insert paper title here") customized form letters? I'd love to know more about how this works out... – Arno Mar 16 '15 at 15:03
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    @Arno: No. Typically, those who send out form letters have a harder time finding internships. But some of them still do! (at least, they did when I was a student) – Aditya Mar 16 '15 at 15:25
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    This is very interesting. That being said, while I am sure that the great students from the IITs find something, I am convinced that many applications I regularly get (from other Indian universities) will not lead to an internship in Europe, ever. Some of those are just unspeakably bad, including sometimes applying for entirely wrong areas of science. So I highly doubt that, overall, most of these people find positions. – xLeitix Mar 18 '15 at 12:43
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    @xLeitix, the cost to send a letter out is microscopic, so if even a minimal proportion do net an internship, the payoff is huge. Standard spam economics. Unfortunately. – vonbrand Dec 28 '15 at 12:08
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    It is like a job search: even if your resume is poor, even if your approach is bad, you still keep doing it ( "you" is a general person here). Successful? Rarely, yet people keep looking for job... – Greg Oct 24 '16 at 17:00
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I believe these are genuine requests for internships. They almost all appear to be mass e-mails. Even the personalized ones usually involve just a few "fill in the blank" additions, and it's clear that applicants sometimes share templates because I've received nearly identical e-mails from different applicants.

As far as I can tell, it's a vicious cycle. It's difficult to judge these applications, and most of them are wildly ill-matched or inappropriate, so recipients usually don't even reply. (I've found that replying is viewed by some applicants as a strong form of encouragement, even if I just say something like "Sorry, I never have any interns and I don't work in area X in any case." I feel bad about it, but this is a powerful motivation not to reply.) The lack of replies pushes desperate students to send out huge numbers of e-mails, and this drives the response rate even lower. The net effect is that everyone ends up unhappy with the status quo. For example, see the comments here, which feature discussion from both faculty and internship applicants.

If these are from real students, why do they think this could potentially work?

It seems to have degenerated into a lottery, in which a few students succeed in getting an attractive internship and that motivates many others to try.

Why India?

One partial explanation is that there are enormous numbers of English-speaking students in India who would be willing to consider studying abroad and would like to get an international experience as undergraduates. I've also heard that the IITs encourage students to do internships, but I don't know the details.

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    I agree with the interpretation insofar as the senders genuinely want to come for an internship. I disagree because I don't believe that they are genuinely interested in the internship itself. And I don't think one should feel guilty about ignoring these emails. If someone so clearly demonstrates a lack of interest while still trying to use someone elses time and resources, I think ignoring them is actually undeservedly polite. – A. Donda Mar 16 '15 at 18:00
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    I wouldn't be surprised if there was someone somewhere profiting from software which mass-spams these emails. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Mar 16 '15 at 19:26
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    I'd like to thank you for the answer, and point out that I upvoted it. I've accepted Aditya's due to the first-hand knowledge imparted there. – Arno Mar 17 '15 at 1:01
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Some of the comments to this blog post by Jeffrey Shallit written in January 2010 appear to be from students from India.

Comment 1:

Not really. Most of the email soliciting these internships come from students who are looking for a free vacation in a foreign land, to make a bit of money and to get laid. The trend was started a few years ago, when some actually talented individuals were invited to universities abroad. Since then, these IITians seem to think that they are entitled to free lunches. My advice to you would be to install a spam filter that identifies these types of mail. If not, you can write a mail to the director of the institute or the dean of UG studies at "deanac@hijli.iitkgp.ernet.in" requesting them to forward a circular banning students from spamming international academicians. However keep in mind that some of the students are actually very talented, so to weed out the hacks, you can post some instructions that applicants must follow (many professors in major US universities have already done so). I hope these emails do not create a bad impression of IIT grads in your mind. I should hope so, considering I am one myself :)

Comment 2:

this is an Indian student of the college in discussion. We Indians are basically opportunists who have little to do with research when we say 'we study in premier institutes of India'

Mass mailing is a fad amongst iit students, most of whom look for a paid vacation in your project. But iitians provide economic labor and some of them work above expectations(some...mind you). Next time, try negotiating with the guys, and i am pretty sure you would save by outsourcing to the brown :D regards

Comment 3:

I too am a student in the mentioned institute, and like the guy who sent this mail, I have been applying to various professors in my field of interest.

Of course, the sad truth is that most of us write a template mail and send it to a group of 100 odd professors. These are generally the ones who want to have a "free lunch".

There are, though, certain very talented applicants who actually read your papers and are interested in working with you.

It is very sad that these students are screwed because of the spammers, but such is the reality.

Comment 4:

Intern Mail Spamming has always been a nettling issue for the Professors of foreign universities.

It is agreed that most students mail for the sake of getting an internship rather than having a keen and genuine interest towards the work. Yet, its a perpetuating fact that the Indian Institutes of Technolgy produce the best academicians.

Thus, its a request to all the Professors o kindly keep their mind casual in this regard as they can be assured of really talented students whose mails are on the way.

There are more comments, but they seem similar to these.

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    I'd like to thank you for the answer, and point out that I upvoted it. I've accepted Aditya's due to the first-hand knowledge imparted there. – Arno Mar 17 '15 at 1:01
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    You should properly acknowledge the source of the text you quote. – David Richerby Mar 17 '15 at 9:44
  • The source is in the link I provided, but I edited the text to make it clear who the author of the blog is. – Joel Reyes Noche Mar 17 '15 at 15:14
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Tl;dr: Few people genuinely want to do research internships at universities unless they are academically oriented. Successful students’ stories spread around. Juniors under pressure to land an internship emulate/copy templates. Despite sound advice from seniors, a lot of undergraduates send spam.


As an undergraduate senior currently studying at IIT Bombay, let me try to add to the already written answers by Aditya etc. with reference to my interaction with my seniors and peers. As has been mentioned in Aditya‘s answer, there are some formal channels to get internships; these are mostly helpful for top-ranking students, whereas the number of students wanting to do internships is much more.

At IIT Bombay, there is no mandatory internship requirement for graduation but I know other universities where this is the case. As far as I understand, students, especially juniors (and to a lesser extent sophomores) are under quite some pressure to land a "summer internship" and the order of preference is typically as follows: Great company > Average company > Foreign University > Indian University > Current University ≫ Nothing.

For students who are interested in entering the job market after graduating, the order follows naturally, where the last few inequalities stems from peer pressure and the last one from “something is better than nothing”.

For academically-oriented students – primarily aiming to apply to grad schools abroad the next year – the first two options are not relevant. Here, the internship serves three purposes:

  • Doing decent/good work ensures a letter of recommendation for grad school from a Professor who is not from your current university (the general belief is that such a LOR is likely to be more helpful than a “local” one).

  • Research experience helpful for deciding fields of interest.

  • As somebody as already pointed out, free vacation in a foreign country.

Of course, the relative importance of each factor varies from individual to individual.

In the fall semester, there are often short sessions organized by student bodies on “tips on landing an internship” from successful seniors; I have attended a few of these. The common summary usually boils down to: if you are interested in some professor’s research write a short email with:

  • short introduction;
  • research you are interested in (after reading papers);
  • previous research/study experience with linked/attached homepage/CV.

Although all our seniors strongly advise us against writing fake emails (like the ones you’ve mentioned) as it hurts the reputation of the student community and especially affects those who write sincerely, there are inevitably more than a few who feel desperate (because statistics of landing an internship via emailing are so low), skip over the “reading papers” bit and choose to send spam in bulk rather than a few well-thought emails. And inevitably, one “ideal” email gets shared which is copied and edited as a template. This leads to a “race to the bottom” as pointed out in the answer by Anonymous Mathematician.

Apart from the statistical factor, there is an obvious mental cost of writing a genuine email; posting spam takes little to no effort compared to writing a sincere email – I remember having written exactly one email which took me around two weeks including reading papers, references etc.

A short reply to Pete L. Clark’s comment:

If faculty members really wanted their students to do internships abroad, why aren’t they helping them out in some way?

Many students have little to no experience with undergraduate research and are looking to land an internship quickly. Professors do occasionally help students get such an internship abroad; this happens mostly in the case where the student has prior undergraduate research experience and is comfortable talking about the situation with the professor.

  • Sadly, this trend is exclusive to IIT's either. The number of people wanting to do an undergrad thesis has steadily been the rise in BITS as well, probably more so because of the academic structure. – shortstheory Sep 5 '18 at 5:43

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