Guest Blog | My Way to a Research Project in the USA

8 March 2019

Florian is a 2nd year Biochemistry student who describes how he sought out and secured summer research opportunities in Germany and at Columbia University in the USA.


Internships not only offer great opportunities to step out of one’s comfort zone, develop new skills, and explore various fields and jobs, they are also highly valued by employers and can have implications for your future career.  However, securing a place for an internship is often competitive and can bring along sleepless nights. In this article, I am going to demystify the process of finding fulfilling summer internships or research projects in the field of Life Sciences and the US visa application procedure.


February 2018. All of my applications for the major funded summer internship places were turned down. However, I was still able to find a research opportunity in my home country of Germany. Here is how. I emailed a principal investigator (= research group leader) at the Ernst-Moritz-Arndt-Universität Greifswald who I knew of that she studied in the UK during her time as a Postdoc. Along with a short paragraph stating my academic background and interest in the field that the group is specialised in, I sent my CV, a letter of recommendation written by my course tutor and a cover letter. Within a few days, the PI replied and offered me to work on a project on catalytically active RNAs (see https://www.ucl.ac.uk/studyabroad/options/other_opportunities/biochemistry_research_at_ernst_moritz_arndt_universitat_greifswald). This made me very happy and I could proceed with applying for funding. I was very lucky that I was awarded a UCL Global Experience Bursary.


February 2019. I am currently in the middle of the US visa application process. After I contacted research group leaders who I really wanted to work with, I was accepted for a research project focusing on CRISPR-Cas adaptive immune systems at Columbia University in the City of New York which is an Ivy League research university. What saved me from disappointment in the first place was defining for myself what kind of topic I would like to work on. The number of groups focusing on CRISPR-Cas was limited and so, I could write short individualised emails. This is really important since a very basic email that could be addressed to any lab is not likely to evoke any interest in you and hence gets ignored. Furthermore, it is a good idea to have a look at a few of the PI’s publications to find out more details about their research. In addition to a short paragraph, I also sent letters of recommendation from the lab in Germany as well as a transcript of my first-year marks. 


There are also other ways to find research opportunities. I know a student who attended a talk organised by a UCL society and found her summer internship PI like this. UCL as an internationally leading research university can also be a good point to start at. For example, there is the UCL Laidlaw scholarship and iGEM, a research-based competition in the field of synthetic biology. All you need is a genuine interest. This can go a long way, just be courageous (and a bit lucky).



An overview of the J-1 visa application process for the USA

A few years ago, I visited the USA without having an official visa but an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) visa which can be obtained via a fairly straightforward online process. This allows tourists to stay in the US for up to 90 days and is available for citizens of most European Union member states and some countries in Asia and Australia/Oceania. 90 days would have been sufficient for my project at Columbia University.


So far, so easy. However, I learnt that an ESTA visa only covers travel related to tourism and business, whereas working in a lab is rather consistent with the status of employment.

From this moment on, I have been receiving great support and advice from the research group leader and the Faculty Affairs Office at Columbia as well as my course organiser at UCL. For educational and exchange visitor programmes, the US designed the J-1 Visa Program. This can be individually tailored by the host institution. Since many US universities like universities in the UK accept students from all around the world, they are registered as official ‘Sponsor Organisations’ and therefore, are directly involved in the visa application process. A list of all sponsors can be found on the U.S. Department of State website.

Your sponsor should issue some of the forms required for the process for you. Start early, this takes time. The host institution might be particularly busy in summer, before the new academic year starts. Unsurprisingly, the forms are quite complex, so be prepared to send various documents to the sponsor organisation. Here is a list of what I had to send:


  • Preliminary questionnaire: personal details, requested period of stay, any family members/dependents that will accompany you
  • Curriculum vitae
  • Copy of passport: must be valid for your stay
  • Bank statement/letter of sponsorship: this should indicate that either you, one of your family members or a sponsor has funds available to cover the costs of your stay, your host organisation should tell you the required minimum amount per months
  • Secondary School/High School Diploma
  • Signed acknowledgement of the minimum medical insurance coverage: make sure that your insurance covers medical treatments in the US
  • Student Intern School Form: this is the only document UCL had to provide for me, it states that the internship fulfils educational objectives of my current degree programme
  • All documents must be submitted in English


Once your different forms have been issued, they should be sent to you. You are ready to pay the visa application fee in order to get another document and then apply for an appointment at your home US embassy. There, you will be asked about your internship plans and your intention to return to your home country before your visa has expired.


Although this might sound a bit intense, a J-1 visa application is a stepwise process and since your host institution in the USA, most likely, is keen on getting you across the ocean to work for them (once they have accepted you), one will not be left alone.


Feel free to e-mail me any related question: florian.hoffmann.17@ucl.ac.uk