Internships: Let the search begin

by Miriam Öttl

“Dear applicant, I am sorry but all internship positions in the lab have already been filled.”

As a first-year master student I received a lot of emails like this when I was looking for my first internship position. What a nightmare! So many applications sent, yet so few responses and then mostly rejections. Admittedly, I hadn’t started looking for a position before October. With my hands full with demanding courses and as an international student getting used to a new environment, I didn’t devote much thought to the internship at first.

This turned out to be quite a problem for me as time went by and I learned that a lot of labs had already started filling their positions as early as September. This meant that, before I had even sent in my first application letter, many positions were already taken.

To add to my stress, I didn’t really know how to apply for an internship…

Do you send a letter of motivation with your CV? How do you address professors in the Netherlands? 

Since I’d only had one month of coursework, I also wasn’t really able to define what my research interests were yet. This made it difficult for me to decide where to apply and to write strong motivation letters, which delayed my applications. As Christmas break neared and as I still hadn’t been invited for more than a couple of interviews, my panic grew steadily. I started to fear that I wouldn’t find an internship at all. Luckily, it didn’t come to this, and just before Christmas I got accepted to a lab, just in time to meet the proposal deadline.

My situation was not unique. Many of my fellow classmates also struggled with finding a good internship position. It seems that we weren’t aware of how difficult and time consuming the process would be. A common mistake was to start with the search very late in the game and to limit yourself to only looking at the VU. At the beginning of the masters, we felt that looking for an internship next to the intense period 1 coursework was not possible. However, in retrospect, the coursework was just as intense throughout all periods of the program, and since positions were filling quickly, the search just got more difficult as time went by. 

The most important advice that I want to give is to start looking for internships immediately.

You should start small: Before or after studying in the evenings, take a few minutes and look at university websites and read lab descriptions. You’re already on your computer, aren’t you? You can start making yourself a list or spreadsheet of labs you’ve looked at so far, and apply to the ones that seemed interesting… Did the topic of their research intrigue you? Do they use techniques that you find interesting? – Apply to them and find out more! 

As for the question of how to apply for an internship: there are no strict rules. But there are of course tips and tricks that are good to know. This year, an internship symposium* has been organized to let you know about internship opportunities for your program, including how to get started in your search. Information from this symposium as well as the internship manual and the CANVAS community are your friends! They hold very useful information on the whole internship procedures.

How did my internship end up? Well, what is important to know is that even though the one I got was not my first choice, I enjoyed it a lot. Taking part in science in such an applied way for the first time made it an amazing five months. I ended up at an external lab at the University of Amsterdam, which broadened my horizons even further. For my second internship I returned to the VU and now I have started my PhD at the same lab.

Finally,  I want to advise you to not panic too much if you do not get the dream position you hoped for, but to accept a new challenge with open arms. Enjoy your first internship! It is a unique experience. And don’t forget… being early is key.

*Internship Symposium (location: O|2 Building Auditorium)

Biomedical & Biomolecular sciences: 19th September 1.30 PM

Neurosciences & Biomed Neurobiology: 20th September 11 AM

About the writer

Miriam is an international student from Austria. This summer, she has completed the Neurosciences master at the VU and has now started her PhD in the lab of Matthijs Verhage. Her projects involve work on synaptic proteins that regulate neurotransmission.