Summer Isn't What it Used to Be


Summer Isn't What it Used to Be

—from the Lab Manager's bench and the PI's Desk

If you’re feeling abandoned by your research project because of COVID-19-related cancelations, you’re not alone. This summer, many undergrads who thought they would be participating in an intensive undergraduate research experience in a lab, clinic, or field are finding it difficult to reconcile that their program has been shuttered or their experience has been moved to an online format.

In the last few weeks, we’ve answered concerns from students and mentors alike on how to best navigate summer research experiences in this uncertain climate. To our undergrad readers, know that it’s understandable to be disappointed. It doesn’t make you selfish or inconsiderate of what’s going on in the world to feel let down because your summer research experience is no longer what you imagined it would be and it’s currently falling short of your expectations.

And to our mentors—the same. We’re right there with you with all the fears and frustrations connected with watching our projects hibernate or derail along with informing our mentees of the consequences and the lack of control we have over the situation.

Usually, we have lots of advice for researchers and mentors alike. When we’re reflecting back at the end of the summer, sure we’ll know more through our experiences and those shared with us by colleagues and connections on social media. But for now what we mostly have is a combination of fatigue and frustration with a little bit of hope mixed in depending on the day. So unlike most of our posts on this site, this article is more about understanding what’s happening (or not) in our labs this summer so we have a more efficient way than DMs to answer the most common concerns undergrads are asking us.

Why did my professor cancel my summer undergrad research program? Why am I not getting paid? It’s not my fault that it was canceled.

In many cases, a summer research program was outright canceled by the program’s organizers. In these cases, the professors or other mentors weren’t given the option to host an undergrad in the lab (or remotely). For these programs, labs participate by agreeing to host a summer research student but the professor is never in control of the funds that pay those students. Essentially, when a program is canceled, the money set aside to pay participants is no longer available to distribute.

For some undergrads, this means more than the loss of a research experience. It’s also the loss of a summer stipend, a place to live, potentially research class credit, or the only chance to gain research experience before applying to graduate, medical, or professional school next fall. As of the date we wrote this article, we aren’t aware of any programs that have been canceled but are still paying students. (If you know of any, please Tweet at us!)

Does the fact that I got into a research program count now that I’m not participating in it?

Yes, and you can mention it on future applications and your resume. You were still accepted into a competitive summer research program and that is meaningful information that shouldn’t be left off your resume or future applications to grad, medical, or professional school. The opportunity to participate was canceled not your accomplishment of getting in. So, yes, include the program’s name, location, and date on your resume with an asterisks and short explanation that the opportunity was canceled due to COVID-19. We’ve already updated our CVs in the same way for the invited talks that we were scheduled to give this summer.

I wasn’t part of summer research program so why can’t I keep working on my project this summer?

There are instances where a lab that was not part of a program but in-lab research experiences for summer undergrads are no longer available. Some, but not all, of the reasons are as follows.

Labs are temporary shuttered. For many of us, our labs are closed until X happens. That X is dependent not on our wishes but on the administrators charged with making the decisions that keep us safe. And when (if) labs reopen this summer, there will strict social-physical distancing protocols in place, possibly shift work, and more that we can’t anticipate.

Also, some mentors just don’t know if they will have the time, personal resources, or physical space or permission to reopen their lab during the summer. So instead of updating hopeful students each week with a stressful “I don’t have an update” some have opted to not take new students, design new projects, or to place current projects on hold.

Remember, just like you, your mentors are trying to hold their personal lives together. And although they may appear to be super human at times, mentors just don’t have a magic ability to do every thing as usual. Our conversations on Instagram in particular have revolved around attempts to maintain some sort of productivity working from home while being caretakers for family members, grocery-getters for neighbors, and emotional support for labmates, employees, mentees, friends, and family members.

Why didn’t my mentor just cancel my summer research experience?

In a nutshell, mentors feel an obligation to do what we can for our mentees. So many mentors who have maintained the option of designing remote research projects are creating projects that are compatible for remote work—often made possible because of the type of research they do, the of scientific field, or the ongoing mentoring relationship of a student who was already in the lab. These experiences will likely include group lab meetings (mostly though Zoom) and one-on-one meetings, as warranted.

The concerns commonly expressed undergrads about this format change range from missing out on actual wet lab or clinical experience, continuing with online work when they are already burnt out from taking remote classes, and switching to projects that they have no interest in participating in.

My undergrad research summer experience was turned into a remote experience and I’m not interested in the proposed project. Can I tell my mentor that I don’t want to be involved this summer?


During the course of a regular research experience, you’re going to do technical work or chores that you don’t enjoy that are part of the overall experience. There is no time, for example, that most people enjoy washing glassware, cleaning up after doing a procedure, or taking copious notes but they still need to be done. But that doesn’t mean that you are obligated to participate in a full summer of doing research and research-related tasks that you have no interest in.

You can decide to turn down an opportunity that isn’t what you want to do. You can decide to forgo summer research even if you like the idea of the project but no longer want to spend your summer doing research.

Although we do recommend that before you officially “quit” that you connect with your in-lab mentor or lab professor first if you’re at all unsure. They may be able to address your concerns or possibly modify the project in a way that piques your interest. It’s at least worth asking even if in the end you decide research isn’t for you this summer.

More to come…