How to Thrive in a Summer Program

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Pathways - Advice from Experienced Voices

How to Thrive in a Summer Program


Kaitlyn Sheriff, Associate Zone Counselor, SPS Council, and SPS Chapter President, Lycoming College


Kaitlyn Sheriff stands near the top of Green Bank Observatory. Photos courtesy of Sheriff.

The National Radio Astrology Observatory—that’s right, Astrology—existed for approximately three days. When my research cohort learned about a tradition in which summer students working at National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) locations prank their sites, we knew we wanted to go big. The hardest part was probably renting and transporting a ladder from Home Depot tall enough to allow us to change the building's sign. The University of Virginia (our site) needed a utility truck with a lift to undo our modifications.

If you’re heading to an REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) or internship this summer, I don’t necessarily recommend pranking your summer research location, but I do recommend having some fun! 

At my NRAO REU last summer, I studied a high-mass X-ray binary system, reducing data from the Very Large Array (a radio astronomy observatory) and writing Python code. I had invaluable professional experiences, such as when my mentor walked me through the process of writing proposals for the Very Large Array and helped me develop my professional writing and presentation skills. I also went to the top of the Green Bank Telescope, pranked the NRAO, attended a Washington Nationals baseball game, walked through Thomas Jefferson’s home, and picked fresh peaches at an orchard. Balancing work and downtime is important to success. Too much work can easily lead to burnout, but too much downtime can prevent you from accomplishing your goals.

As you get ready to embark on your own summer research adventure, consider these practical tips that I learned from ​my journey. 

Set Clear Goals. What do you most want to get out of this experience? Whether it’s obtaining research experience before graduate school, expanding your knowledge of programming languages, or exploring a new technique, establishing a clear, overarching goal will guide your efforts and help you maintain your focus throughout the summer.

Foster Connections. Strive to create meaningful connections with your summer cohort and mentors. Have shared experiences and create a supportive community that can learn and grow together. The relationships that you build in a few short months may grow into future collaborations and career opportunities.

Embrace Adaptability. One of the largest hurdles to overcome in a summer program may be accepting that research is unpredictable. Setbacks, especially in the beginning, occur all the time. View them as opportunities in disguise—overcoming challenges fosters a mindset for lifelong learning and professional growth. 


Kaitlyn Sheriff and her group commemorate the brief existence of the National Radio Astrology Observatory. 

To make the most out of your professional research experience, seize the moment and prioritize your personal experience, too. Living in a new place presents the perfect opportunity to explore! Take time on weekends to catch a baseball game with peers or go on a hike and watch the sunrise. Venture out of your comfort zone and discover what the local community has to offer. You may soon find a favorite Saturday morning farmer’s market, coffee shop—or even Home Depot.


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Pathways - Advice from Experienced Voices