I was fortunate enough to hold an NSERC USRA position during my undergraduate career, and as a result, I was occasionally asked how I found such an opportunity. This post should explain the process and give a few tips for finding a supervisor. USRAs are a great way to gain valuable research experience before graduate studies and explore academia beyond the classroom.

First, be prepared to look outside your home institution. While there may be many potential supervisors at your home university, each university typically receives a limited number of awards. Applying to supervisors at other institutions increases your chances of securing a position. Furthermore, these departments may also pay out of pocket for students that are ineligible for USRAs, such as international students (for example, I know the University of Toronto Department of Computer Science and the University of Waterloo Department of Combinatorics & Optimization will do this if you cannot secure an NSERC award). The only catch is that you won’t be able to tell people you held an NSERC award, though the pay and research will be the same and still worth the time.

Second, start early. Departmental and university deadlines vary, but most are in January or February for summer (May-August) positions. Some are earlier but I found looking for positions around the first week of January resulted in the majority of deadlines being met.

Third, don’t wait for departmental invites, approach professors. Many professors have projects waiting around for students to work on, but don’t have the time to advertise, or their department doesn’t have enough professors with projects to put out a call for students. Seek professors with related research interests and send them an email or approach them to discuss potential projects. I found professors who listed supervised students the most likely to respond, but others that didn’t list any students would often also respond. If possible, check to see if the professor’s university has any specific in house rules for obtaining an award. For example, the University of Waterloo requires an “A-” average (80%) for consideration while the award only requires a “B” (73-76%). These aren’t always a major concern, especially if the professor can work something out with the university–though this usually requires you to be particularly suited for the position. Do make sure you meet the eligibility criteria for the award as described by NSERC–these are necessary. I would say that you should take special care to seek professors who have NSERC grants, but most professors have them so you probably don’t need to watch out for it. In the worst case, you’ll be informed that they aren’t supported by NSERC and you should move on. Regardless, when you approach professors, bring or email a copy of your undergraduate transcript and your resume. In most cases, an unofficial transcript will suffice. Lastly, know departmental deadlines and rules in case the professors haven’t supervised a student recently or before; it save them work and I’ve been asked before.

If your project seems promising and you’re invited to apply, make sure you supply the professor, his or her department, or the university’s department of research services or graduate studies with the appropriate documents. Such documents will include NSERC Form 202 Part I and might include a questionnaire, or an official copy of your transcript (like the University of British Columbia’s Department of Mathematics), so it might be wise to order a few in advance of applications. Your supervisor will have to fill out Form 202 Part II and reference your application, so make sure you fill out Part I online and provide your professor with the reference number. You will need to print out, sign, and deliver a hard copy of the form in most cases. If you’re applying to an institution you’re not familiar with, it may be possible to mail this document to your professor to hand in along with their Form 202 Part II in order to ensure it goes to the correct people.

Fourth, make sure you apply to multiple institutions. Sometimes a professor will want to work with you but the institution will not grant you the award. Make sure to send multiple applications out unless you know you’ve got a position secured. Be sure to inform your potential supervisors of this: it means theres a chance you won’t be working for them, and some departments want to know if you’ve applied elsewhere.

Lastly, I’ve included a list of departments and institutions below that actively invite students to be considered for NSERC USRA positions (usually summer positions). Note that they currently focus on mathematics and computer science departments as these were my primary areas of study, so I apologize. If you’re reading this and know of other departments or institutions that advertise open positions, send me an e-mail and I’ll add it to the list.

Good luck!

List of institutions and departments looking for USRAs
List is in no particular order. Last updated: May 18 2011

Other programs

The following programs might also be of interest to undergraduate students looking for research experience. Note that some of them may be restricted to U.S. citizens.

  • Rising Stars of Research. An undergraduate research conference hosted by the University of British Columbia for Canadian undergraduate researchers to showcase their work.
  • AARMS Summer School. Atlantic Association for Research in the Mathematical Science’s annual summer school for promising undergraduate students and graduate students.
  • NSERC-CMS Math in Moscow Scholarship. Research experience abroad.
  • Undergraduate Research Opportunities at the Perimeter Institute. Summer projects in theoretical physics at the prestigious Perimeter Institute.
  • USEQIP. A two-week long summer school hosted by the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo. Note: link might die as it contains the date. If so, go to the IQC website here and search for USEQIP.
  • Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) at the California Institute of Technology. “Caltech’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships program introduces students to research under the guidance of seasoned research mentors at Caltech and JPL. Students experience the process of research as a creative intellectual activity.”
  • SMALL. “The SMALL Undergraduate Research Project is a nine-week summer program in which undergraduates investigate open research problems in mathematics.” Hosted by Williams College.
  • Go! Research Program. Summer program hosted by Carnegie Mellon University. Areas include chemistry, computer science, engineering, economics, robotics, statistics and more.
  • Moncrief Undergraduate Summer Internship Program. The Moncrief Undergraduate Summer Internship Program is organized to provide summer support for qualified undergraduate students of mathematics, science, and engineering to work with [Insitute for Computational Engineering and Sciences (“ICES”, located at the University of Texas at Austin)] faculty and research staff for a two-and-a-half month period.”
  • Budapest Semesters in Mathematics (BSM)

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