As the spring semester starts, many students are starting to think about the same thing: what am I going to do this summer?
Luckily, Swarthmore offers resources both for students who have planned projects or unpaid internships as well as those applying to established research opportunities.
Among these resources is research through the academic divisions and academic funding to support students’ research projects. There are research opportunities in each of the three academic divisions — natural sciences and engineering (NSE), social sciences, and arts and humanities — and students can take on a diverse array of projects throughout the three divisions.
Students majoring in the natural sciences typically partner with a professor who is already doing research.
Professor of Astronomy Eric Jensen worked with two student research assistants last summer, reviewing data to find moments when stars passed in front of each other. In an interview with The Phoenix, one of Professor Jensen’s research assistants, Ann Sinclair ’23, described her experience.
“I learned some really interesting science,” she said. “It was fun to focus in and feel like an expert in one specific thing rather than just getting a broader view which is what I feel like we do in class.”
In an interview with The Phoenix, Jensen said he believes that summer research is important for students because it provides them with an experience that no college classroom can.
“A lot of the stuff we learn in the classroom has been refined over the years where a lot of people working with a lot of messy data have worked out these specific principles, but when you’re working with the messy data yourself you see that sometimes things aren’t quite as simple,” he said.
Summer research, according to Jensen, teaches students how to wrestle with unanswered problems, how to be aware of what things can go wrong and be prepared for them, and how to push through challenges that seem insurmountable.
“[Research] can be discouraging too!” he added, laughing. “But one of the things I tell my students and tell myself when things are going wrong is when you’re doing research you’re trying to do things that are just barely possible to do with the data you have. The easy things to do people have already done, so you’re trying to do things right on that edge of impossible, so things are going to be challenging.”
All students can benefit from doing research over the summer, but for students who want to go to grad school, getting summer research opportunities is even more important.
“It has become the case, in the sciences anyway, that if you want to go to grad school in that field you pretty much have to do research as an undergrad,” Jensen explained. “But grad school isn’t the be all and end all and I have plenty of students who do research and then end up doing something else, and I think there are still skills that you learn there that you don’t learn in the classroom.”
There are obvious academic benefits to doing research, but Sinclair also found that the social aspects of doing summer research were a great bonus.
“I developed a strong friendship with my research partner, which was wonderful, and I really enjoyed living on campus in the summer when I didn’t have tons and tons of work to do,” said Sinclair. “I’d come home and cook dinner with friends and have fun on the weekends, which is something I don’t always have time to do with school.”
While natural sciences and engineering tend to be the division that offers the most summer research opportunities, students interested in the social sciences or the arts and humanities also have plenty of chances to gain these same research experiences and skills.
The difference between NSE research and the other two divisions, especially arts and humanities research, is that most students outside of the NSE division will create their own research project.
“It is quite a heterogeneous bunch, arts and humanities, so you can’t just say go to one of the labs we have here,” said Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Arts and Humanities division Peter Baumann. “The basic idea is that it is a project the student came up with, and if it pairs with something a faculty member is doing then all the better. But usually it is a project the student has created and the faculty is happy to help the student with.”
Students being funded by the arts and humanities divisions might travel to another country over the summer to learn a new language, continue a research project they started during their course work, or start on a new project they have been looking for the funding and time to complete.
“When students come in and they want to do something they say ‘oh I would love to have more time reading and perhaps writing something on this topic do you think there’s any chance’ and that’s absolutely the right attitude and that’s what the college is trying to support as much as it can,” said Baumann.
Like Jensen, Baumann also spoke about summer research being important for students in his division because of the unique experience it provides outside the classroom.
“You take courses here and do specific things for your courses, but these are always short term projects and there isn’t room for longer projects, and that is a pity. But the summer research is one way to balance that,” he said.
As of now, all academic funding and research is on course for the summer, and professors are moving ahead with reading applications and selecting students for funding. However, there is still speculation about whether COVID-19 will end up interfering with summer plans.
“So far everything has been quite normal, but we will have to wait and see as this year is different than last year already,” said Baumann.
While students enjoy the chance to do research over the summer, academic research isn’t the only opportunity available.
“I would recommend students do research, but only if they are interested in it. I think there is this idea of pressure to do research, or it’s the only valid thing to do in the summer, but there are tons of other things to do in the summer,” said Sinclair.
For students who want to do something else besides research over the summer, Swarthmore provides opportunities and funding for non-academic projects.
One such opportunity is summer funding through the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility. The Lang Center provides students with funding for four types of projects: unpaid internships, faculty-led engaged research, student-designed projects, and the Chester Community Fellowship.
Other Lang Center funded opportunities include the Davis Project for Peace, which gives one student a grant of $10,000 to implement a project for peace anywhere in the world, and the Pulitzer Reporting Fellowship, which grants a selected student up to $4,800 to complete a reporting project on a topic of their choosing.
In addition to the Lang Center, there are also Summer SwatWorks Micro-Internships available for students both over the summer and throughout the academic year. SwatWorks, a new program launched by the college, connects students with Swarthmore alumni in order to work on a micro-internship with them in their career field. There are micro-internships in all different types of fields and they range from ten hour projects with a stipend of $125 to 40 hour projects with a $500 stipend.
In an interview with The Phoenix, Tiffany Wong-Jones ’23 shared their experiences completing a micro-internship. Wong-Jones spent last summer working with alum Andrew Sniderman editing his upcoming new book.
“This was my first job as an editor, and it made me realize this is something I actually want to do in the future. It was also cool to work with a Swat alum, and I’m really grateful for the connections SwatWorks has given me,” they said.
The first half of the spring semester is always marked by students applying for funding, research, jobs, internships. While the college provides some opportunities for students, and career services is always open for students who might want to talk about internships, jobs, or applications, all students can do at this time is apply and wait.
“Go for it, apply, that’s all — that’s the most important thing,” said Baumann.
For more information on summer opportunities from the college, please visit https://www.swarthmore.edu/summer-opportunities.