Information compiled by the GradSchools.com team - last updated November 2010
Summer is the perfect time to buttress all those stellar grades you've earned over the course of the past year. After all, when it comes to the jobs for which graduate school degree-holders aim, the competition gets pretty fierce. So you should be doing everything in your power to make sure your resume and application stand out.
Summer offers the perfect opportunity to do something extraordinary, which is exactly what your goal should be. When you step back from the reality of the graduate school situation, you get some sense of how amazing so many of your fellow students really are. And these are the people against whom you'll be competing for that dream job in the field for which you've been preparing all these many years. So when you think about the ways in which you'll be spending your summer months away from the classroom, you should do so with a serious strategy in mind.
There should be no limits
Don't limit your summer plans to those areas directly related to your graduate program. After all, most students will be spending their time working in internships or research projects in their particular field, so why would you want to lump yourself in with the crowd? Instead, think outside the box: What can you do that will not only look impressive on a resume, but will also make you stand out from the crowd?
Say, for example, you are pursuing your doctorate in genetic engineering at one of the big schools in New York City. It certainly will look great on future applications if you can say that you spent a summer working on a research project with a famous professor there, but you should not limit your options to only that. Why not try to get one of those fellowships that afford you the chance to travel to some remote part of the planet and help an impoverished population build housing? At first glance, it may seem counterintuitive to spend your time doing that, but there are some very real, and very creative, ways in which it applies directly to genetic engineering.
Continuing this hypothetical situation, if your work in school is focused on genetically engineering disease-resistant crops that provide excellent nutrition cheaply and easily, it's one thing if you spend all your time in a lab, working on new ways to modify the processes that lead to these crops. But working or volunteering in places in the world that could potentially benefit from your labors in the lab will make you a much more well-rounded individual, and therefore a better genetic engineer. Presto: You'll stand out from the crowd.
The same logic applies to any number of fields of graduate study.
Mine the depths
We've all heard the phrase "It's not what you know but who you know." Well, now is the time to put that phrase into practice. What you should be doing is going around to the professors with whom you have the best relationships and asking them what they'd recommend you do to further your work and eventual career over the summer. You may be very surprised what they tell you.
By showing so much initiative, they may be impressed enough to point you in directions you couldn't have otherwise known about. For example, there may be a research project or a summer conference that is open only to those who have been invited. And there's always the chance that you could be one of the fortunate few actually offered a spot. Or they may recommend you do something totally unrelated, like the summer programs noted in the first section of the article. Either way, by enlisting the help of those who are already established in the field, you will not only be affording yourself the opportunity to experience some things you otherwise wouldn't have known about, but you'll also be sending the message to your professors that you're serious about your future, and that you're someone they should keep their eye on.
Or just stay put
Sometimes, of course, the best thing you can do is just stay where you already are. As great as some of the opportunities are in the wider world, there are times when sticking around campus is the best thing you can do. Remember, there is absolutely no shame in this. By finding yourself working either helping out professors or the university itself (tours, teaching summer classes for the undergraduates, etc.), you send the message to all who see you that you care about your academic community and want to help make it the best it possibly can be. This is of incalculable value if you ever want a good word said about you when you're looking for a job, or if you want a better-than-the-ordinary recommendation written on your behalf.
It also will make you a fixture on the campus, and being known in a small, sometimes insular academic community is often the best way to assure that you'll get ahead. By making your presence known, you send all the right signals. Just don't be obnoxious about it: You should, after all, not only be doing this for all the possible benefits you could reap, but also because you really should care about your school. The better you make it, the better it will reward all your labors both in the classroom and outside of it.
In the end, then, you should find a way to spend your summer months doing something that will benefit both yourself and your school, as well as open the doors for whatever opportunities come your way. In the long term and the short, you'll be very glad you did.