Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships at Caltech

Opportunity Description:

The Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) program is one of the "crown jewels" of Caltech. Since 1979, SURF students have had the opportunity to conduct research under the guidance of experienced mentors working at the frontier of their fields.
SURF is modeled on the grant-seeking process:

  • Students collaborate with a potential mentor to define and develop a project
  • Applicants write research proposals as part of the application process
  • Faculty review the proposals and recommend awards
  • Students carry out the work over a 10-week period during the summer
  • At the conclusion of the program, students submit a technical paper and give an oral presentation at one of several SURF Seminar Days, symposia modeled on a professional technical meeting.

In 2022, Fellows will receive a $6,840 award for the ten-week period.

To enrich the research experience, SURF Fellows are invited to attend the following:

  • Weekly seminars by Caltech faculty & JPL scientists and engineers
  • An academic and professional development series on developing a research career, graduate school admissions, and other topics of interest to future researchers
  • Effective writing workshops
  • Social and cultural activities
  • Weekly small student-faculty dinners
  • Special field trips

Primary Responsibilities: 

Upon receiving a SURF, students sign an agreement to fulfill the following requirements:

  • To devote full effort to conducting the SURF project (Fellows cannot take courses or hold another job.)
  • To participate in the project for the full ten-week period
  • To submit two interim reports approved by the mentor
  • To submit an abstract of their project approved by the mentor
  • To submit a written technical report approved by the mentor
  • To give a final oral presentation
  • To abide by Caltech's Honor Code

Minimum Qualifications and/or Eligibility Requirements: 

To be eligible for SURF you must:

  • Be a continuing undergraduate student and eligible for fall term registration*
  • Have a cumulative GPA of at least 2.5/4.0
  • Complete the second semester or third quarter at your college or university**
  • Not be under any academic or disciplinary sanction.

* Students need to be matriculated in a degree-granting undergraduate program. High school students who are co-enrolled in college courses are not eligible.
** Students from the University of Iceland or from one of the following Cambridge colleges (St. John's, St. Catherine's, Corpus Christi, or Pembroke) may only apply to SURF through the established exchange programs with these schools. Please contact your school to find out more information.

Additional Requirements for Visiting (non-Caltech) International Students

International students are eligible to participate in SURF on the Caltech campus; however, only U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents are eligible for SURFs at JPL. If a SURF award is made, international students will be given instructions on how to apply for an F-1 or J-1 student visa abroad prior to participation in SURF. International students currently attending a college or university in the U.S. must secure special off-campus employment authorization prior to participation in SURF. F-1 students must apply for either Curricular Practical Training (CPT) or Optional Practical Training (OPT); J-1 students must apply for Academic Training. Please consult an International Student Advisor at your current U.S. institution as soon as you apply for SURF to understand your school's requirements and deadlines for authorizing off-campus work authorization. CPT, OPT, or Academic Training must be approved by your home institution prior to beginning your SURF placement. OPT approval may take in excess of three months!

Application Process: 

Students must identify and contact a research mentor in advance of submitting an application. A mentor must agree to support your application, help you to develop and define a research project, and assist you in the writing of the research proposal.

This early interaction is a very important part of the application process. Visiting (non-Caltech) students usually have to accomplish this discussion via e-mail, phone, or Zoom. If a student is in the area, we encourage them to visit the campus and meet the mentor. Please refer to the Finding a Mentor page and Tips for Meeting with a Potential Mentor for additional information.

All application documents must be submitted directly to the SFP Online system. SURF applications are due on February 22. We will contact the applicant's mentor for a confidential evaluation after the application is submitted. The application contains:

  • An online application
  • A research proposal written by the student and uploaded to the application
  • An unofficial transcript for visiting (non-Caltech) applicants
  • Confidential letters of recommendation
    • Caltech students must submit two confidential letters (at least one from a faculty member). For freshmen, the second may be from an RA, TA, coach, or employer.
    • Visiting (non-Caltech) students must submit three confidential letters from faculty (at least two in the relevant discipline).

The Research Project
The most important factor in selecting a project is your enthusiasm for the project itself and for working with the mentor. Although most students seek projects in their options, SURF provides an opportunity to explore other fields. SURF is not "just a summer job"; a project should have significant intellectual and creative content. The benchmark for a suitable project is the potential for publication in the refereed literature.

The Proposal
The proposal should be as technical and specific as you can make it as it will be read by people in the field. It must outline what you plan to do, and why it will be useful. The outline consists of theoretical background and experimental techniques, how the work fits into the flow of the research in the field, and a work plan for the project. Proposals will be reviewed and evaluated by the mentor and by a member of the faculty in the project field. If you are a 2nd or 3rd time SURFer, your proposal should show a higher level of depth that would be expected of an experienced researcher. For further guidelines on writing an excellent proposal, access the Proposal/Project Plans.

Recommendations are completed online with the application form. The online application will request recommender contact information from the student. The recommender will then be emailed directly and asked to submit their recommendation into the online system. If you have done a previous research project with a different mentor, that mentor should write one of your recommendations. Recommendations are also due on February 22 so submit your recommender information well in advance. Your prospective Caltech mentor will complete a separate evaluation and should not write a letter of recommendation.

Visiting (non-Caltech) students need to submit an unofficial transcript at time of application. If an award is offered, you will be asked to have an official transcript mailed in a sealed envelope from the records office at your college or university.

Applications are judged on the following criteria:

  • Research proposal is a clear description of the proposed project. It demonstrates the applicant's understanding of the nature and purpose of the project, how it relates to other work in the field, and it includes a work plan for accomplishing project goals.
  • Proposed project allows student to take intellectual ownership and has potential for publication in refereed journal. Proposed project can be reasonably done in a 10-week period.
  • Student is prepared for the project (coursework, experience, etc).
  • Mentor and faculty have submitted supportive recommendations and evaluations.
  • Returning SURF students are expected to have stronger applications reflective of their prior experience.

Awards will be announced on April 1. Students will receive e-mail notification of the outcome of their applications and instructions and forms required to accept the award.

Click here to apply!

Application Deadline: 

Tuesday, February 22, 2022
For more information on this opportunity, please contact: