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SAO REU Summer Intern Program: Frequently Asked Questions:

The basics...Who is eligible? What is available? Special cases.

If you have sent us e-mail and have not received an answer, please try to reach us again via telephone (Kara Tutunjian: (617) 496-7063). Sometimes we write back to you and our reply bounces. Sometimes your e-mail doesn't reach us. SAO filters aggressively for spam: sometimes valid e-mail gets flagged as being spam and is shunted to the trash pile. And, unfortunately, because of travel schedules or other unforeseen circumstances, we occasionally fail to reply. We never ignore anyone intentionally!

Please check your SPAM folder for email from before contacting us.

By agreement with many other REU Sites, we anticipate making offers on March 1.

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The best e-mail address for all queries:

General Questions (1-18)

1)  Is the summer program essentially the same every year?

Many elements can vary, though our goal is to be as consistent as possible. The program may run for nine or ten weeks, depending on how long Harvard housing is available to interns. We sometimes offer specific internships in such fields as History of Science or Science Education. The stipend may change. The number of interns has been about the same every year but we can't guarantee any absolute number in any year. By agreement with other Astronomy REU programs, we do not contact students before March 1st about the results of our selection process. We try to contact students as soon as we can after March 1st. The process can be delayed by a number of variables. Because things may change, we urge students to check our web site for current information.

2)  I'm a very bright high school student. Can I apply to this Program?

Not unless you are also enrolled as an undergraduate in a degree program someplace. The NSF guidelines specify that we must limit internships to undergraduates. There is a summer program for high school students at MIT. Their program allows students to work in various departments (not just astronomy).

To find out about their program, go to: MIT ESP

Phillips Academy, in Andover, Massachusetts, has a summer science program called MS2 for minority high school students. It is a multi-year program.

MS2 is a competitive math and science program for minority students who have shown strong interest in and aptitude for mathematics and science.

Here's a quote from a note I received from Elizabeth E. Washburn, (MS)2 Interim Assistant Director, in January, 2010 about the program:

There is no cost to the student - it is fully funded for those students selected to our program for the full three summers. The only cost that they might incur would be incidentals.

We do have some specific guidelines and requirements for this program - we only accept economically disadvantaged African American, Latino, and Native American students who are currently in ninth grade in public schools in targeted cities (Boston, Lawrence, NY, Baltimore/DC, Atlanta, Memphis, Louisville, Cleveland, Chicago and Native Americans from anywhere in the country), they must complete Algebra 1 by the end of their ninth grade, and they would come for three consecutive summers (after their ninth, tenth, and eleventh grades). You can read more on our website or you can call us at 978.749.4402 for more specific information.

For more information about their program: (MS)2 The link to Phillips Academy's main page is: Phillips Academy .

Harvard offers its extension school program through the summer. Brown has a precollege program. Most large colleges and universities in the Boston area hold some sort of summer program.

You might also check the answer to Question 49 for suggestions for pre-college study.

3)  I am a high school student. I'm taking some undergraduate courses now too, but I'm still technically in high school. Am I eligible for your program?

You are eligible if you are enrolled in a degree granting program and will be 18 years of age or older before June 2019. A number of high school students take a college course at a local college but are not enrolled in a degree granting program. Thus most high school students are not eligible. If you are eligible, the answer to the question about whether or not college freshmen applicants have a chance at an internship provides further information you might find useful.

You might also check the answer to Question 49 for suggestions for pre-college study.

4)  I'll be graduating from college in June. Am I still eligible?

No. The SAO Summer Intern program is only open to those who are enrolled as undergraduates at the time of the internship. Graduating seniors are not eligible. This is an NSF requirement for all REU programs.

5)  I'm a freshman. Do I have a chance at an internship?

As a freshman you will be up against more experienced students. I don't mean that you don't stand a chance against them, just that you will have some heavy competition. Successful interns have generally completed at least sophomore level calculus and physics classes.

If you have taken these courses, it may be a good idea to apply for next summer, even if you don't get accepted. Going through the process gives you practice in putting a strong application together. If you are not accepted, you can apply again. You have lots of time, and therefore many chances to be accepted here. Your second application would demonstrate perseverance, not seem like a rerun of a failed attempt. That would be true the following year, too (truly!). Some students believe that if we don't accept them the first time, we never will. Proven untrue! In theory all undergraduates who apply for placement in the SAO Summer Intern program have an equal chance at landing an internship. In practice we base our choice on criteria which generally cause us to select more experienced students. Elements such as courses taken, other job experience or extracurricular experience would help a student qualify for an internship. If you are a highly motivated person and you have a serious interest in science, there is no reason not to apply for an internship, providing you meet the eligibility guidelines.

On the other hand, you might decide to wait a year.

During the year you might let your teachers know that you are aiming for an internship (at SAO and perhaps other NSF REU sites). Ask them for their support, and for suggestions as to how to improve your chances. Professors can help in many ways. They can help you learn to write a great essay, help you find summer work which would be of interest to you and helpful to your application, or help you to strengthen any weaknesses in preparation for an internship. If you can get a job or internship this summer working in science, that would be great. (It's the classic dilemma: it's difficult to get work because you don't already have experience!) Volunteer work in science would be as valuable as paid work in terms of experience and recommendations. You might try applying for work at science museums, check with scientists at your institution (just about everyone could use some volunteer help, and you might even get a piece of a grant!), or join a local amateur astronomy club. Look for any place you can get some astronomy or science-related experience.

6)  I have only been at my college for one term. My high school science teachers know me and my work better than my professors here do. Can my high school teachers (or other people) write letters of recommendation for me?

Sure. If you had teachers in high school, or if you worked for someone outside of school who will write you a rave letter of recommendation, then by all means send us those. We want to know as much as we can about you, so ask at least two people who know you fairly well to write the letters.

Please see the related question about freshman applications for further information.

7)  Do you have internships in chemistry? biology? medicine?

We don't have any positions in pure chemistry or biology, but may have projects that require a chemistry or biology background, i.e projects that relate chemistry or biology to astronomy or atmospheric science. Students who apply for internships here want to see what it's like to work in astronomy, physics, or closely related fields. The Center for Astrophysics contains a very wide variety of people who do many different sorts of work related to astronomy and astrophysics. Any staff scientist at the CfA may submit a project proposal for a summer intern, and each year there are more excellent projects proposed than we have intern positions. You may want to browse the Center for Astrophysics research pages to see the range of research that is ongoing at the CfA. We have offered internships in instrumentation (most recently in X-ray optics). Projects requiring a strong chemistry background have recently been suggested in the study of exoplanets, in Laboratory Astrophysics (astro-chemistry of rare molecules in the interstellar medium and how best to detect them via radio astronomy), and in Atmospheric Science (measuring the molecular content of gases in the Earth's atmosphere). In addition to traditional Galactic, stellar and extragalactic astronomy, we also have had projects proposed in solar system science (dust storms on Mars, outer solar system physics, tracking orbits of near earth asteroids). If you are interested in any of these more interdisciplinary areas, we encourage you to apply. The only area we do not consider are projects that exclusively study our Sun. If you are interested in solar physics at the CfA, apply directly to our sister program, the SAO/NSF Solar REU program .

If you have an idea of how you might fit into our program and want to find out if we would consider you eligible, email us and ask!

8)  I am a foreign student. Can I be an intern?

The NSF specifies that students must be United States citizens, or have a Green Card to be funded REU interns. This rule extends to foreign students who are enrolled in United States colleges and universities. "J1" or other visas are not sufficient.

If you are unsure about your status, please contact us.

For the many highly-qualified students who are not eligible for REU internships, the Web is probably the best source for information about other jobs and internships.

Ask your professors, teachers, friends and/or family members if they know anyone who works in science (and/or in industry, depending on your area of interest) in the U.S. A.. Someone might be able to put you in touch with a scientist who could provide you with summer work or with another type of internship.

If you find a job possibility or an internship, please be sure to check what visa (if any) is required. The visa-acquisition process changes, so please be sure to research the matter carefully and allow the time needed for the paper-work to be processed.

9)  I am a U.S. citizen, studying abroad. Am I eligible?

Yes. As long as you are a citizen or have a valid Green Card, and as long as you are enrolled in a program that leads to an undergraduate degree, you are eligible. If you are not sure whether or not your study program fits this guideline, please contact us.

10)  I'm a business major, do I have a chance at an internship?

Non-science majors are not included in our REU program. The SAO program is intended to help undergraduates who have an interest in astronomy and astrophysics, physics, or general science to decide what major or field they want to pursue; to confirm what they have already chosen, and/or to give them practical experience in these fields which may help them choose the best course to pursue.

We have occasionally offered internships in closely related fields (history of astronomy and astronomy education to name two), but our focus is on physical science.

11)  I'm not 100% sure I want to be an astronomer - or even a scientist! 
        Does it make sense for me to apply for an internship at SAO?

Maybe. Our program is designed to help students decide if they like working in a research environment. We don't expect that they all will. As with any experiment, one must be prepared for negative results - they are as valuable as positive ones. Past Interns have mostly gone on in astronomy, physics or astrophysics (about 90%). Applicants should have a strong interest in science and math. (There may be exceptions to this. Sometimes we offer a science education internship.) Applicants may be weighing science and another career choice. Our program can help them make such a choice. Because we have only ten or eleven positions to offer each year, we try to select students who will get the most out of being in the program. Our program offers students a great way to get a realistic look at a science career before investing the time and money for graduate school study in science.

In addition to working on a science project, students talk with scientists, mentors, grad students and each other about the non-science aspects of choosing science as a career. This aspect of the program is an invaluable help in making the choices that will determine the direction of a student's adult life.

12)  I haven't taken astrophysics (or astronomy, or some other specialized courses).  Do I have a chance at an internship?

We don't expect undergraduates to become instant postdocs! Assuming that you have written accurately about your background and experience on your application, we will be able to match you well with a project/advisor.

As stated elsewhere, a strong math/physics background is important (generally at least sophomore level calculus and physics classes). We don't require students to have taken astrophysics or astronomy. We try hard to match students well with their science advisors, and to make sure that the students don't feel overwhelmed by their projects. Interns get "on-the-job training", and plenty of support as they work. Mentors stay in touch with their interns to help with all kinds of matters. It is sometimes more convenient or more comfortable for an intern to bring up a problem with their mentor than with their advisor.

The staff of the Intern program will help in the event that a student's skills and an advisor's needs are seriously mis-matched.

So, we don't expect students to have special knowledge about x-ray astrophysics or radio astronomy when they arrive. What matters most is that a student be willing and able to tackle a project with good organizational skills and a curious mind. That said, the program is fast-paced so we do expect you to have some familiarity with astronomy in general. If you have not taken a formal astronomy course, this could be from your own reading, a local astronomy club, or from community outreach projects related to astronomy. Our science projects are not busy-work. Students help scientists with their actual research, modeling and interpretation as well as data reduction, but at a level appropriate to their academic backgrounds.

13)  Do you only accept candidates from the big, "prestigious" institutions?

No. We also choose candidates who might not be "obvious" choices, based on their whole experience and demonstrated enthusiasm for science. We match students with scientists who work here. We are looking for a good fit. That opens the door for students from all kinds of institutions. Students from institutions which have limited opportunities for research are especially encouraged to apply.

14)  I use a wheelchair. Can I participate in the SAO program?

Yes...absolutely. We encourage you to apply. If you are accepted as an intern, write to us and describe some of the problems you anticipate. We will work with you to solve them.

I'd love to be able to write that it would be no problem for you to get around here. That's how it ought to be. Alas, our facility is pretty primitive. Even so, it *would* be possible for you to be an intern here. A new ramp was just built recently. Last year the Interns all worked in one room - down a flight of steps but with an exterior sidewalk entrance that can be opened when needed. We could put a terminal someplace more accessible. The fourth floor of the observatory is not accessible by elevator, but there's no reason an intern would have to go there. Advisors can come to you when needed.

The biggest problem would be getting to and from the dorm. I assume that Interns will be staying where they have in the past. That dorm is about six blocks from here. If you've been to Cambridge, you know that the "infrastructure" is ancient. The sidewalks are made of brick, for example. They might be hard to traverse in a wheelchair. Unfortunately, both sidewalks and streets in Cambridge are rather narrow and poorly-lit. You probably have considerable experience dealing with conditions like these. Sometimes people ride in the street because of the poor state of some sidewalks, but that is definitely not advisable, especially after dusk. We would work closely with you to ensure safe access to and from the Observatory.

15)  Is there a minimum age requirement (or a maximum age limit) for interns?

Yes, the minimum age is 18. There is no maximum age limit.

16)  I'm married. Can I still apply? If I am accepted, can I bring my spouse?

Absolutely. Harvard University, however, limits dormitory residency to participants in our program. That's only a problem if you need housing for two. Housing is expensive and difficult to find in Cambridge, so you should allow plenty of time to make your own housing arrangement. You should probably start a search as soon as you are accepted into the program.

17) Can I be an intern if I can't begin the program on the starting date? 
        Or if I have to leave before the end of the program?

We require that interns be here for the full extent of the program. We structure the program to take advantage of all of that time. In particular, the first week contains important orientation activities and tutorials on skills needed to complete your research project, as well as actually beginning research with your advisors. Since our program dates are constrained by the Harvard University academic schedule and availability of Harvard housing, our start date may conflict with Spring finals at some universities. Students at these universities who want to participate in our program are encouraged to talk with their home advisors and professors, before considering a position with us, to see if they can take their exams early or have their exams proctored by one of the program Directors here at the CfA. We will work with your professors to make it possible for you to attend. However, if you do choose to take your exams here, you are still responsible for attending all scheduled program activities and tutorials.

18)  I'm a junior. Do you have any special advice for me?

You will be an ideal candidate in terms of where you are in your schooling. It helps to have as much experience as possible. We can only accept undergraduates, so you will have the maximum permitted course work behind you (and this is the last year in which you can apply). It would be best to wait until after your fall term course work is complete and recorded on your transcript to upload it, if you can do so before the application deadline.

Finances, logistics and Cambridge (19-24)

19)  Who pays for what?  Who provides what?!

  • The Program covers the cost of housing in a nearby Harvard dorm (unless you are a self-funded foreign student). Interns don't pay for their utility bills.
  • A cellphone is the best option. If you don't have one and you need a phone, you can arrange for phone service here. It's best to bring your own telephone unit. Getting and returning a telephone from/to Harvard is a hassle. Students make their own arrangements for hooking up telephone service. Be prepared to pay a large deposit to Harvard for hook-up. Harvard uses this as a float: you make calls, they send you a bill. If you don't pay it, or if you exhaust the deposit, Harvard deducts what is required from your deposit and cuts off your service exactly when the deposit is exhausted. If you stay up-to-date with your bills, they refund your deposit before you leave. No question about it, a cellphone is a lot easier and the only option recent students have used!
  • If your legal, permanent address is over a 50-mi radius from SAO Cambridge, we subsidize your domestic travel to and from the program (in June and August). We send students a round trip-airline ticket in advance, and we reimburse taxi fare/ground transportation to and from Logan airport or the train station. Airline checked-baggage fees will be reimbursed up to the cost of two checked bags each way, excluding excess weight and size fees.
  • The dorm usually does not have air conditioning. If that is the case, Harvard housing provides one large window fan per student. The Observatory is air conditioned.
  • Interns buy their own food. They may cook meals in the Harvard-housing kitchens, eat out, or buy lunches from a lunch-cart at the Observatory.
  • Interns pay for: transportation around town, entertainment, medical bills, etc. Taxis are expensive here. Students generally travel around the city by bus or subway (these systems are pretty good). The Porter Square subway stop is a short walk from the Observatory, and the Harvard Square stop is near the dorm. For those who like to cycle, bring your bike helmet. Bicycles may be rented through the BLUEbikes bike sharing program .
  • Depending on where you come from, you may find the cost of living is higher here than what you are used to.

20)  Can you help with the cost of travel to and from Cambridge?

For those interns whose legal, permanent addresses are over a 50-mi radius from SAO Cambridge, the travel subsidy covers domestic round-trip travel by air or rail (whichever is most economical) to the program. The point of departure and return must be the same, e.g. home to home or school to school. Please contact us if you have a different point of origin and return.

21)  What arrangements are there for food at SAO?

The Interns are on their own for food. There are some nearby places to get good, relatively inexpensive food*, and there are grocery stores near the dorm.

The dorm has a kitchen. We provide kitchen utensils and dishes. Interns are responsible for keeping the kitchen and dishes clean.

Cambridge is a city: there are markets nearby, and lots of restaurants of all kinds within a 10 minute walking distance. Harvard Square (a ten minute walk from the dorm) is a good resource. One can find a meal just about any time, though after about midnight, it might have to come from a 24-hour mini-market (there's one near Porter Square).

*Prices are higher here than in many parts of the country.

22)  What kind of housing is there for interns?

Housing has been provided by Harvard University (dormitory space about six blocks from the Observatory) during past summers. The rooms currently provided are singles. We expect this will continue to be our source for housing. If not, the Program will find similar housing elsewhere. Keys to the dorm will be provided on arrival. Housing in this area is relatively expensive, and we want students to be able to make some money during their summer here, so the Program covers housing costs. Students pay for telephones if they want them installed in their room. We recommend, however, that students use their own cell phones. Internet access from the dorm rooms is provided by Harvard. There is a shuttle bus for students, and an escort van so students can get around safely late at night. You are not required to live in the dorm but we are unable to subsidize any other housing arrangements.

23)  How much is the "stipend," and how is it paid?

Students earn $6,000 ($600 per week per intern for 10 weeks), contingent upon our funding by NSF.

No tax will be withheld from your award, but you will be issued an unofficial tax statement at the beginning of the next year. The Smithsonian does not issue W2s or 1099s to interns because you are not on the payroll. The funds are considered "fellowship awards", and not "stipends." Please note that all award recipients are expected to file tax returns, and that it is important to retain copies of the award agreement and of checks or the electronic statements of the award payment for your tax records. However, for legal purposes, SAO cannot advise you on tax filing, so please consult with a tax professional or contact the IRS and/or Massachusetts Department of Revenue.

For more information, see Tax Information for Fellows at SAO, especially items A, D and the Web Resources listed in item H.

Again: Interns DO NOT GET A W2 or 1099 form from SAO.

24)  How safe is Cambridge?

Cambridge is a culturally diverse city -- comfortably so. The level of education is high because of the many schools and universities here. This is a cosmopolitan, liberal city. People from all over the world, gay and straight, rich and poor, live together here with relative ease.

The Observatory is in an up-scale residential neighborhood which contains mostly large old houses and occasional apartment buildings interspersed with Harvard housing and facilities. Harvard owns a lot of property here, so there are libraries, gyms, dorms and other university buildings scattered around.

Cambridge and the Harvard campus are relatively safe. However, crime can happen here, as in any city or on any college campus. Because students often have expensive gear, there is some theft of personal belongings here. Property left unattended may vanish. Bicycles get stolen. Occasionally students are robbed and muggings, although rare, can happen.

We give students maps of the city when they arrive, and a packet of safety suggestions from the Harvard campus police office. The key to safety is the use of common sense "street" smarts. One should always be aware of other people when walking around any city. One should take reasonable precautions - don't wave large amounts of cash around or walk distracted while using a smart phone or other electronic device; don't wander alone late at night; don't leave backpacks, computers or smart phones unattended in an unlocked area. If you are using a bicycle, make use of the secure storage areas provided at the dorms. If you are working alone late at the Observatory, make use of the Harvard University "Safe Ride" program to return to your room. Try not to look like a wealthy tourist. Don't alter your consciousness in unfamiliar surroundings or go off alone with strangers.

Interns choose how venturesome they want to be while they are here. While there is no need to leave Cambridge, it is natural for interns to take advantage of their stay here to explore what Boston and vicinity have to offer. It is easy and fun to walk around Cambridge and Boston, as many natives do. Buses and the "T" (subway) are available, reasonably priced, and they cover the area pretty well. For those who enjoy cycling, bring your bike helmet. Bicycles can be rented for short rides through the BLUEbikes bike sharing program . Interns can ask anyone here for advice about interesting places to visit. Go in groups. It is more fun that way! The use of common sense will keep one safe from most harm here, as elsewhere.

I'm about to apply, but I need to know... (25-29)

25)  I'm hoping to do some real science - is that realistic?

Interns are not "free summer help" for scientists. A common concern of prospective applicants is that they will be doing routine chores all summer. They won't. Scientists are asked to design a nine or ten week project on which interns collaborate. The projects require full-time attention and involve creative work. Sometimes projects extend beyond the end of the Program. The decision to participate in an extended project is the student's, of course.

26)  I'd like to choose my project. Can I? What if my training isn't adequate?

No, you can't choose your project. We do our best to match students and advisors.

Interns work with scientists on projects which the scientists have designed to be completed (if at all possible) in the nine or ten week period of the Internship. The scientists who design the projects don't always know much in advance what they will be working on over the summer. Projects vary widely. Check the list of past projects to get an idea of what interns have done in the past. 

The projects are at a level appropriate for undergraduate Interns. Scientists know that they may need to teach Interns new skills. We don't expect to match student's experience or skills exactly with scientist's projects. If we tried to do so, we might have to rule out candidates who haven't specialized. By doing so we would always decide in favor of the most focused students, rather than our goal of choosing motivated students who will benefit most from the program.

27)  Any general suggestions?

  • Read or glance through the whole Intern web site so you have all the information we provide before you start. Return to the web site occasionally to make sure there haven't been any major changes that would affect you.
  • Start the application process as early as you can. Contact those writing letters for you as soon as possible, and make sure you have their correct email addresses. Enter their names and email addresses on the application form early, saving after you do, to give them plenty of time to be notified by us and upload their letters of recommendation before the deadline.
  • Leave nothing to chance. Follow up each person who has agreed to do something for you. Make sure that the letters have been uploaded. Make sure that you have transcripts from all universities or colleges you have attended and that you have successfully uploaded them (up to the most recent three) into the application form. Unofficial copies of transcripts are ok for the application process. If you are accepted we will ask you to mail official transcripts from your registrar before your appointment can be finalized.
  • Write your essay well.

    "Write well"... that sounds obvious, but it's not so simple. Use standard spelling and punctuation in every correspondence or piece of writing we will see. (Skipping capital letters or using creative abbreviations and spelling makes you seem illiterate, not cool.) Be honest. Write from your heart as well as from your mind. Read what you've written aloud - to a professor, to a tape recorder, to a friend, to yourself. Put your essay away for a week and read it aloud again. Put yourself in our shoes. We are real folks here, sympathetic and interested in what you have to say. "Outside interests" or non-school activities are important. It seems a lot to ask of students who are perhaps earning their way through school that they also do volunteer work or have extensive hobbies! If you do have interesting avocations, write about them in your essay. Your interests may be varied. They don't have to be science-related. We are looking for engaging, multidimensional folks. It is important to characterize yourself strongly and clearly in your essay. We get a lot of applications for the 10 internships, so candidates must work to be "memorable." It would be good to mention and discuss any research you have done, and it wouldn't hurt to say so if you want to do more work in that field.

  • Perhaps this is obvious too, but choose professors (or employers) who know you well and like your work to write letters of recommendation for you. A heart-felt endorsement from a high school teacher is better for you than an impersonal form letter from a famous professor.
  • I read a lot of e-mail from students... When you send e-mail to any potential employer or person who might be important to you in the future:
    • Use standard punctuation throughout. Unless you are sure it will be appreciated, lose the no-capital-letters mode.
    • If possible, send your e-mail message in ASCII (plain text) as well as any other format you use (such as microsoft .doc) You don't know what kind of e-mail reading program/software the recipient will have. ASCII is always readable. 
    • Spell-check your e-mail messages and check them for grammatical errors. The form of the message (which greeting to use, if any, whether or not to write "Regards" or some other formal closing, etc.) doesn't matter, but if you send a mangled, misspelled message with a risqué quotation after your signature, you will make a negative impression on most recipients.
    • Conversely, a well-written note makes a good impression. It might help you, and it will never hurt you. Employers and academic types notice and appreciate this show of courtesy and skill. Good writing form doesn't make you seem stiff, stuffy or boring.
    • Check to make sure you are giving the impression you want to give. Remove any scatological, overly-cute, snide, or otherwise off-putting logo or quotations you might use at the end of your personal correspondence. When it comes to "trimmings", less is more.
    • Apply the same principals to filling out e-mail forms and to all other electronic communications you make. The recipients will appreciate it.
    • Make sure that what you are asking or providing doesn't make you look foolish or careless. Try to find the answers to your questions by looking around our web site. Learn as much as you can before you write. For instance, we don't accept resumés. If a student sends one anyway, someone has to write back to them and tell them to put everything they want us to know in their essay. Such things aren't of earth-shaking importance, but they take up our time.
  • Be sure to send us an address and telephone number where we can contact you, and especially a telephone number where you (or somebody who will contact you) will be during the last three weeks of February and the first three of March. We make our offers personally by telephone, and can't offer you an internship if we can't find you.
  • Check our web application site well ahead of the deadline (once you think we should have a complete application for you), to be sure we have received all the pieces of your application. If something is missing you'll have time to track it down or upload a substitute.
  • If you are unsure about something or have questions, contact us via email using intern[at] . We really want to help! As stated on our REU home page, if you don't get an answer by email in two business days, you may telephone us.
  • Consider applying to as many REU or other intern programs as interest you. If you aren't offered your first choice internship, you might discover a talent, even a passion for something you hadn't previously considered while experiencing your second or third-choice internship.

28)  What are the titles/projects of internships?

We usually don't know until February what the intern projects will be. Scientists here are working on on-going projects. If they ask for an intern, we ask that they design a 10-week project. We list various possible areas of concentration on our main web page. Look at the project descriptions for other year's internships to get an idea of the range of projects we offer. See the Interns Projects by Year section with links to project descriptions for previous years off the main SAO Intern Program REU home page. However, new areas may also appear each year, especially in interdisciplinary areas such as in instrumentation or astro-chemistry (See FAQ 7)

29)  Can I also take other courses (or one other course) during the summer?

No. The internship would have to take precedence over any course work. While the interns arrange their own work schedules with their advisors, they don't generally have much "free" time for independent projects. The program is just too short and busy for less than full concentration. Even one additional course would probably interfere with the internship. You would probably not be able to do either the project work or course work as well as you would like. Your experience of the internship would suffer because you'd feel pressured and over-worked. And remember, it will be summer --- you might want to leave yourself some time to play!

The application process (30-39)

30)  A lot of information about the electronic application completion data: the process for filling out and checking application fields and various other important matters covered in detail here. Warning: There is some "yelling" in this section -- the details are vital!

We want all students to complete the application process correctly. Reading the following information will help to clarify and guide you through the process.

1. How to understand the electronic application completion data: 

(a) Number represents the number of 'incomplete' fields i.e., The notation (1/6) next to the recommendation letter, for example, means that 1 of 6 required fields is incomplete (in this case the actual letter upload has not been received. The student's work is done except for follow up with professor)

(b) Student fills out all but 2 of the application fields, which are 2 letters of reference (uploaded by letter writers). Up to 3 transcripts should be uploaded by the student into the electronic application form. Note that unofficial transcripts are ok for the application process.

NOTE: letters must be uploaded to our secure electronic website in order to register as received by the site. Letters sent any other way may not be considered and will not be recorded on the site.

PLEASE WARN YOUR RECOMMENDERS: Reference letters MUST be uploaded as pdf files. Microsoft .doc files DO NOT PRINT when attached to the pdf application. If a professor uploads that format by mistake, the letter IS UNREADABLE by anyone, including the committee, and thus counted as NOT RECEIVED!

(c) When you have completed the portion of your application for which you are responsible, hit the "application complete" button. That is, when the STUDENT'S PORTION of the application is complete, even if letters of recommendation are outstanding.

2. Caution on letters of reference: 

Notify letter writers BEFORE entering recommender's names into the application form and tell them to watch for a message from the program that will tell the letter writer the secure upload website address AND give them the password active for the site. If the professor is not aware that such a message is coming, it may inadvertently be deleted and/or sent to a SPAM box (effectively lost). Letters are NOT to be sent to, since they will then not be attached to the application or recorded as received. Questions only regarding the use of the secure upload site SHOULD be directed to Since the email to your recommendars are generated electronically, the person recommending you should send us an inquiry, if the email is not received within a week.

If a student deletes a professor's name from the application, this immediately de-activates that professor's password. The password will NOT work even if the student decides later to use that professor as a reference. If the student then reenters the professor's name, a NEW email with a NEW password is generated automatically. Thus it is the STUDENT'S RESPONSIBILITY to notify her/his professors if (a) she/he decides NOT to use the professor after all and deletes that person's name/email from the application, OR (b) she/he deletes, but then reenters the SAME professor into the reference field.

Students should check with professors about letters. NOTE that any letter not sent as a pdf to the upload site WILL NOT be recorded as received on the application status page. STUDENTS HAVE TO GIVE THEIR PROFESSORS AMPLE TIME (at least a week -- more time is better) to meet the deadlines. Professors travel and have other responsibilities. The day of or day before the deadline IS NOT ENOUGH TIME for them to respond! PLEASE -- take this seriously...

3. Transcripts: An unofficial transcript or a scanned copy of an official transcript is acceptable for upload for application purposes. Transcripts MUST be uploaded by the application deadline. DO NOT upload ANONYMOUS transcripts, i.e., make sure your name appears on each transcript you upload.

If an offer is made, then we will then ask you to send an official transcript from your registrar so that your appointment can be finalized.

4. The ESSAY: 
The ESSAY is EXTREMELY important. An application without an essay is considered incomplete and is automatically eliminated from consideration for the internship, i.e., it is NOT READ by the selection committee. The essay is the last field at the bottom of the electronic application form. Always proof read and make minor edits before you finish your submission.

31)  Do I have to upload/submit all my application materials at one time?

No. The electronic application form is open until the deadline. Students are expected to complete their portion of the application during this time. Letters of reference are automatically appended to your application materials when electronically uploaded by your professors or letter submitters. All application materials for each applicant are recorded in on-line application "folders" so students can check to be sure that we have received everything they expected we should. When we begin the review process, everything that is uploaded by and for you or that you enter onto the electronic application will be in your "folder." Feel free to email us for confirmation at if you are concerned.

32)  I'm confused about the letters of recommendation and references you want.

You have a lot of company! This baffles lots of folks. We want you to choose two people who know you, and who know your work.

We suggest that you ask faculty members to write letters for you, preferably at least one from a professor of math, engineering, or science, but your letters can come from any people with whom you have worked. You can ask your high school teachers, if they are your best advocates.

Ask each person if they are willing to write a letter of recommendation for you, and if they have time to complete and upload the letter in accordance with our electronic process before the February 1st, 2019, midnight deadline. To give yourself and your recommenders the greatest chance of success, ask them WELL AHEAD of the deadline. Make sure you enter their correct email address on the application form.

Pick people you are pretty sure will write positively about you. If you are in doubt, ask them directly if they can give you a good recommendation. This is a completely reasonable question, awkward though it might sound: one to which you need the answer! Pick people who are reliable, not so rushed or disorganized that they'll forget about your request or think they can e-mail us a letter two weeks late. Every year students are let down by their professors -- don't let it happen to you.

Enter the names, addresses and email addresses of the two recommenders who you believe know you best on your electronic application form, so that we can contact them with letter submission instructions and will have that information if the letter writer fails to include crucial information in their letter, or if there is a problem with the upload. We might want to check your references by talking with "J. Smith" (or whomever), and we don't want to have to hunt through the Los Angeles phone book (or wherever) to find her/him.

Remember, your references will be contacted shortly after you enter them into the electronic application form and hit "save." You should do this part of the application early. You do not need to wait until the application is complete (i.e., essay finished and full application submitted).

33)  Can I send my essay or transcript (or can my professor send a letter) via the U.S. mail, e-mail or FAX?


We do not accept any application materials sent via ordinary email or FAXed. You must submit your essay and transcripts via the on-line application. Submitters of recommendation letters must follow our instructions to upload letters (in pdf format only) to the electronic site we specify.

The current policy is based on a number of factors:

Recommenders found it difficult to send us hard copy letters via the U.S. mail or other carriers. Letters arrived late or not at all. Students sometimes didn't know that recommenders hadn't sent letters until it was too late.

Neither e-mail nor FAX is a fool-proof way to send documents. The upload site is secure, thus maintaining confidentiality.

E-mail can bounce. It may be dumped into our spam file by accident, or be lost somewhere on the internet.

Importantly, the upload site is secure, thus preserving the confidentiality of information contained in the letter.

Printing and tracking down e-mailed and FAXed application materials would overtax our staff. The project does not have a FAX machine. FAX machines at the SAO are shared by several groups. If a FAX got lost, we would not know it. If someone claims to have sent either a FAX or an e-mail message, we can not verify or disprove the claim.

    We are happy to correspond with students or others via e-mail in advance of the deadline. If we do not answer your email, or if the matter is urgent, please telephone us. 
    You can check your on-line application "folder" to be sure we received everything you expect us to have.

    34)  Questions about the essay?

    Q. In short, what do you want?
    A. We ask for an essay (a maximum of two pages in 12-point font in PDF format only) describing your background, interests, and why you would be a good candidate for our program. Your name should appear at the top of each page.

    You should include your impression/discussion of prior research experiences and your career goals. You should also include a discussion of outreach activities or class projects that were memorable, leadership experience, your outside activities and hobbies, i.e., what makes you uniquely you, and, of course, what interests you most or what you want to gain experience at in astronomy, and why this internship would be a good fit.

    Do not include material covered elsewhere on the application. Essays that just repeat a list of classes taken or computer skills listed earlier on the application or in your transcript are really tedious for the selection committee to read and do not make a good impression.

    Q. Should it be single or double spaced?
    A. Single spaced, please.

    Q. Should I include anything in particular in my essay?
    A. In addition to the above, note any projects or science areas you have particularly enjoyed or ones that you didn't enjoy. Tell us what new areas, if any, in astrophysics you would like to explore.

    Q. How important is the essay?
    A. It's essential. We can't interview candidates in person. The essay is the next best thing. Applications without an essay are considered incomplete and are REMOVED from consideration by the Selection Committee.

    Some suggestions are given under "General Suggestions" (question #27 above, bullet #4).

    35)  I'm having trouble getting a transcript. Can I upload an unofficial school transcript or grade report?

    Yes, for the application process, unofficial transcripts or scanned copies of your official transcripts are acceptable for upload. If accepted into our program, you will be required to have your registrar send us an original, official transcript before your position can be finalized. If there is a problem, let us know its nature and we will work with you on it if we can.

    36)  I'm late trying to get professors to write letters for me (or my professors haven't done what they said they'd do). Can you make an exception for me to the deadline, since it's not really my fault that my letters will be late?

    Variations on this theme come up every year. Often the situation involves elements that seem to be or are beyond applicant's control. It may seem unfair that a student's application is rejected because they have difficulty obtaining a transcript or a professor failed to upload a letter.

    We rarely make exceptions. If we did, it would be unfair to students who meet the requirements on time. We advertise the Program widely so that students can learn about it early, and thus have time to apply. We state the requirements strongly and clearly in our bulletins and posters, and on our web site. If we don't take our own policy seriously, the terms "requirement" and "deadline" become meaningless. Most students do meet the deadline.

    If your situation truly seems to you to merit exception from our rules, write to co-Director Matthew Ashby ( and explain your situation. He will make a decision about your case.

    37)  What if the deadline falls on a Sunday?

    We adjust the deadline each year to fall on a business day. For example, in 2015 year our nominal (February 1) deadline fell on a Sunday, so we extended the 2015 deadline to midnight on the following Monday, February 2.

    38)  I need to access my application but I forgot my password.

    Please write to us at and we will help you. Please don't try to get this help ten minutes before the deadline!

    39)  How do I convert letter grades to the 4.0 scale and compute my GPA?

    A+/A = 4.0 A- = 3.67 B+ = 3.33 B = 3.0 B- = 2.67 C+ = 2.33 C = 2.0 C- = 1.67 D+ = 1.33 D = 1.0

    To compute your GPA in math and science courses, for example, multiply the course credit hours for each course in math and science by its numerical grade, add them up, and divide by the total number of course credits for all math and science courses.

    Questions that arise after students have applied (40-45)


    40)  I don't want to bug you, but I'm anxious to know...

    Please don't hesitate to write to us or to call us (after checking to see if the answer to your question is in your application "folder" or elsewhere on our site). You won't bother us at all. If you don't get an answer, try again. If you still don't hear from one of us try another address. See the notes under Question # 52 "Who staffs the Intern Program?" for contact information.

    41)  When will I be notified as to whether or not I'm being offered an internship?

    At the January 2002 meeting of the American Astronomical Society, astronomy REU program directors decided to set a common date to begin offering internships: on or about March 1st. Students with first round offers will have a week in which to respond. If we cannot reach a student, or if a student declines our offer, we will contact the next person on our list.

    The Summer Intern Program staff charged with evaluating and contacting students work hard to fill the internships as quickly as is possible, given the need to coordinate with students who are scattered around the globe. We know that all students are eager to know their status so they can make their plans accordingly. Experience has shown us that we can't specify an absolute date by which we can notify all applicants, but we expect to contact all students to whom we will make offers during March. We will send letters no later than early in April to everyone who applied.

    If you need to know your status before you hear from us, you are welcome to send us e-mail to see if we can give you a definite answer. We will not, however, by agreement between all Astronomy REU directors, give anyone an answer before March 1st. After that date, we will not be bothered at all by requests for information, and such requests will not prejudice us against you in any way.

    We post the list of interns on this web site a week or more after the letters are sent to everyone to whom we were unable to offer positions. Sometimes it takes us quite a while to do this.

    Sometimes the whole process takes a longer time due to circumstances beyond our control. We understand and regret the tension this uncertainty can cause students who are trying to make their summer plans.

    42)  Why can't you let us know who is chosen for the Program immediately after the application deadline?

    As explained in the previous question, by agreement between all astronomy REU directors, no information about your status can be given until early March. This allows time for each astronomy REU to careful review all the applications received by them fairly, without undue pressure from competing programs. Also, by agreement, offers for all astronomy REU's are made in early March to allow students the greatest flexibility to choose the offer that is best for them. At that time we make offers to several candidates. Some of those may not accept our offer. If that happens, we continue to go down the waiting list. The process might continue for three weeks or more. Any variables such as difficulty reaching a student or a staff member's absence due to illness slow the process. We do this all carefully, and as quickly as is possible.

    Unfortunately, only astronomy REU's abide by this agreement, and some students may receive earlier offers from physics REU's or other non-REU summer programs. If your first choice is an astronomy REU, the other program may extend their offer deadline until after we can give you information about your status with us. It never hurts to ask!

    43)  Why don't you post the results of your selection process on your web site immediately after you finish it?

    We do make a very serious effort to notify applicants who are NOT on the waiting list as soon as we possibly can. For others, there may be some delay in notification past March 1 while the wait list is sorted out. If you urgently need an update on your application status, you may write the Program Directors at: or (if you do not get a prompt email response) call the Program Administrator, Ms. Kara Tutunjian, at 617-496-7063.

    44)  I'd like to be in your Program but I've had another offer. I haven't heard from SAO. Should I accept the other offer?

    The offering dates for REUs and other job prospects cause problems for students every year. That is why the astronomy REU program directors decided to standardize their offering dates. We regret the inevitable (and apparently unavoidable) conflicts that arise because of programs which make earlier or later decisions.

    Sometimes other programs are willing to give students a week or so to see if they are accepted elsewhere. If you have been offered an internship elsewhere but you had hoped to come here, you should ask the other institution if they will let you delay your answer. After March 1, You can contact us to find out if we can give you an idea of your chances of getting an internship here. (See the answer to question #43, and then also #40, above.)

    If you get an attractive offer elsewhere and they will not delay their acceptance deadline until after March 1, we often suggest that it might be wise to accept it. We are not trying to send anyone elsewhere. We just don't want any of the many good candidates who apply for an internship here to miss an opportunity elsewhere because the timing of our process makes it impossible for us to assure them a place.

    45)  I missed the deadline - or - I wasn't chosen this year, but I want to be considered for your Program next year.

    We encourage students to apply for the next summer's Program if they will still be eligible. If you weren't chosen the first time you applied, it would probably weigh in your favor that you apply again. Students might fear that the opposite is true. If you've contacted us once, we already know you a bit. If you are still interested a year later, it shows perseverance! We don't keep application materials from year to year, but we do keep a record of who applies.

    Miscellaneous information (46-51)

    46)  My religion requires that I not work at certain times. Will I be able to participate in the program?

    Generally the interns work fairly "normal" working hours on Monday through Fridays. Often interns, especially toward the end of the program when they are trying to finish up their projects, also work during the weekends. We do not require that anyone work on weekends.

    47)  How can I find out about careers in astronomy?

    One suggestion is to take a look at the AAS home page 
    or the Center for Astrophysics, CfA  where the Intern Program is held.

    Obviously, the Web is a great resource. Many institutions have excellent astronomy departments and programs. Museums or planetaria might also be interesting places to work. Just start looking at web sites of places that you've heard about. Follow interesting links. You'll get a sense of what kinds of work people do. Most institutions employ a variety of people: administrators, astrophysicists, docents, professors, computer specialists, instrument builders, web site creators/managers, publicists, secretaries, to name a few possibilities.

    Adult education, high school astronomy programs, community college courses, and college-level courses might be of interest. If you can't take such courses, speak with the instructor(s) to see if they have any suggestions for you.

    48)  I'm a minority student. Are there any particular opportunities I might pursue in addition to or instead of a standard internship?

    Minority students may elect to apply to the SAO Summer Intern Program through the Smithsonian Institution Minority Awards Program. Information and an application is available at the above site. This program provides internships throughout the Smithsonian Institution, including SAO. Further information can also be requested from the Smithsonian Institution's Office of Fellowships and Internships.

    The Institute for Broadening Participation in Science also compiles a list of available programs in STEM fields, as well as tips on finding and applying to summer research programs.

    49)  I'm not eligible for your Program. Are there any other opportunities for work at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory I might pursue?

    • Try the CfA's online list of job opportunities for undergraduates .
    • You can check out the Opportunities page for a complete listing of programs at the CfA, including any regular employment opportunities that may be open at the SAO.

      Any graduate student, U.S. citizen or not, may apply to the SAO Predoctoral Program to do part of their thesis work with CfA scientists. Feel free to contact scientists here in your field directly to discuss the possibilities. 
      SAO Predoctoral Program

    • If you want to work near Cambridge, you might try Sky and Telescope magazine. They might have work you could do, or know of someone who has work. Their address is: Sky &Telescope, PO Box 9111 Belmont, MA 02178-9917 Belmont is a town next to Cambridge. It's a short bus ride away.
    • The AAVSO is a national organization of amateur observers. It is not just for those who study variables. AAVSO membership (for anyone over 21 years old) is $50.00 per year. They might have suggestions for summer jobs in this and other areas. If you would like more information about the AAVSO you can find them at: AAVSOand at:

      The American Association of Variable Star Observers
      25 Birch Street, Cambridge, MA 02138-1205
      telephone: (617) 354-0484 FAX: (617) 354-0665

      The Science Museum here might have work. You could contact their personnel department by phone (or perhaps they have a web site through which you could apply).

    • General comments about finding work in Cambridge

      • Start as early as December to look for a summer job in Cambridge (or anywhere in the Boston area). As you probably know, Boston/Cambridge is full of students, so it can be difficult for students to get paying jobs here. Difficult but not impossible. It costs a lot to live here, so students generally can't make enough money to save much toward their tuition bills. Finding affordable housing anywhere nearby is another very difficult matter. I'm sorry to write so negatively, but it's better to give you a realistic view of the situation here than to encourage you to come unprepared.

        Having written all of the above, I should add that every year some students *do* get interesting jobs in Cambridge/Boston, and they do make ends meet financially, and they do live in reasonable housing. If you'd like to work here during the summer, start looking around early for possibilities.

    50) Are there any opportunities for graduate students similar to the REU internships?

    Yes. However these opportunities are often for periods of a year or more. See, for example Smithsonian Institution Fellowship opportunities , the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Visiting Students Program, and the SAO PreDoc Program.

    51) Educational opportunities for undergrads and graduate students, unrelated to the REU program.

    For undergrad and graduate students who are Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and/or Transgendered, there is a scholarship program: Point Foundation Scholarship Program information and links

    Of interest to students who live in the Cambridge/Boston area: 
    The Education and Outreach Group at the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research (MKI) focuses its efforts to create and implement effective out-of-school time (OST) science learning opportunities for teenagers (age 12 to 18) and especially focuses its efforts to reach out to youth from urban and underserved communities. More about our group here: MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research (MKI) About the MKI: Founded in 1965, formerly the Center for Space Research (CSR), the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research (MKI) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is an interdepartmental center that supports research in space science and engineering, astronomy and astrophysics. MKI plays a leading role in the design, construction and utilization of instruments placed aboard space vehicles launched by NASA or other agencies. The Institute's projects draw upon the interests and expertise of scientists and engineers from several MIT departments, thus affording a wide array of opportunities for both students and faculty. Experimental programs are supplemented by closely related programs of ground-based research, by theoretical investigations, and by laboratory development of instrumentation for space-based and ground-based experiments. MKI is located at 70 Vassar St. in the building named after the MIT Ph.D. graduate and NASA astronaut Ronald McNair.

    Who are you?!

    52) Who Staffs the SAO Summer Intern Program?

    Drs. Matthew Ashby and Christine Jones are the Principal Investigators for the NSF grant that funds our summer REU program.
    Drs. Jonathan McDowell and Matthew Ashby are co-Directors of the summer program. Dr. McDowell organizes the summer seminar series. Dr. Ashby is ombudsperson. Both act as general, informal advisors to all the interns and sometimes as official advisors and mentors to individual interns.

    These three people, plus one or two other CfA scientists, read and evaluate ALL intern applications. They solicit intern advisors and mentors from the CfA staff and match interns with advisors. During the summer they monitor the research progress of the interns.

    Kara Tutunjian maintains application folders and updates the on-line application web forms. She handles most of the logistical work that makes all the elements -- computers, meeting rooms, travel arrangements, housing -- come together smoothly.

    To get an idea of who the mentors and advisors are (and what they have offered students), please look at the Intern Projects By Year.

    53) How can I get more information?

    If you are unsure about something or need more information, write to us at:

    This is the BEST way to send a question since it is automatically sent to all of us, and ensures that the most appropriate REU team member for a given question is notified.

    Or you can write to us individually: 
    Matt Ashby: 
    Christine Jones-Forman: 
    Jonathan McDowell: 
    Kara Tutunjian:

    To find out if we have received all of your application materials, please check your on-line folder. If you have further questions about your application, please write to Kara Tutunjian.

    Remember, e-mail can fail for a number of reasons, and/or one or more of us may be away. Please try again if you don't get an answer.

    Thank you for your interest in the SAO Summer Intern program!