There are not many companies on offer when it comes to internships for engineering physics students. However, the vast opportunities in research in several renowned universities, more often than not, make up for that deficit. Here we present to you an insight into the hugely in-demand scholarships programs of Caltech and how an engineering physics student can make the best use of this internship opportunity.
University and its details:
California Institute of Technology (Caltech) is a university located in the city of Pasadena in Southern California(USA). Ranked 4th in the overall QS rankings and 7th in the QS rankings for Physics, this university has established itself as one of the world’s best universities.
What it offers to a student:
The university offers SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) program to pre-final year students. My program was more specifically LIGO SURF. The student is offered a project with the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) Lab in Caltech and the work is mostly related to experimental physics.
Selection criteria and process:
There are two types of programs that you could apply for one.
Regular SURF – For regular SURF you have to search for a professor in Caltech and then write a mail to him proposing your project. In this case, you have to convince the professor to give you a SURF. This is usually harder than LIGO SURF.
LIGO SURF – To apply for LIGO SURF you will have to fill in the application in February along with 3 recommendation letters. You will be shortlisted on the basis of your application. If they shortlist you, then they’ll send you a mail with all the projects and a quiz. You will have to choose a few projects. This will be followed by anywhere between 1 and 3 interviews where they determine how equipped you are for working on any of these projects. If you’re selected then you’ll get an offer letter, generally by March.
Skills that define a good candidate:
- A good academic record and a good CGPA
- A fine understanding of physics and some aspects of electrical engineering
- Prior research experience is always valuable. It doesn’t matter if it’s not related to the kind of research at LIGO.
- Willingness to think out-of-the-box and self-sufficiency
As an undergraduate, they just want to know how suited the student is for research. That being said, any research related to the projects they have offered is always more desirable. I had some experience in experimental Quantum Information/Optics, which was directly related to my project that involves squeezing of light to reduce quantum noise.
LIGO and Caltech in general, expect that the student should be able to develop a research-oriented bent of mind and be able to think independently about their projects. Students are given a lot of freedom in their work, and there are generally no fixed hours or schedules. They expect that the student is motivated and dedicated enough to handle their project responsibly.
The projects are generally quite difficult and the students have to work hard in order to get familiar with several new things in a short span of time. Although SURF students are assigned 2-3 mentors, and everybody in the LIGO lab is usually ready to help you out, there’s very less “spoon-feeding”.
Tips for Applicants:
- Develop a good background and a general interest in the field of physics.
- Be clever about writing your SOP. I know some deserving people who got rejected because they gave Gravitational Physics as a preference. Although LIGO is fundamentally about gravity, most of the work these days is going on in the instrumentation part of the project.
- Be honest about your experience/knowledge. They can see through any exaggerated claims.
- Good recommendations are extremely useful so don’t leave them for the last.
- Most importantly, apply for this only if you are really interested in doing research in the summer. Because the amount of work that a student has to do is plentiful, to say the least. Even with the lack of fixed hours, students end up working till late, and sometimes even on weekends.