Students might not be aware of the time horizons of applications for opportunities. Oftentimes, these things need more advance planning than expected.
Here I suggest timelines for undergraduates doing research and applying to grad school, particularly within the United States. Please make sure that students working with you are aware of these deadlines.
Applying to graduate school
You should be deep into grad school applications at the start of the Fall, one year before you plan to start grad school. Ideally, you’ll start further in advance, spending time in the summer to scout out people and programs. At this writing, it is September, and if you want to start grad school in one year, you need to get on it right away. It’s not too late, but if you haven’t done much yet, get your butt in gear.
Application deadlines tend to be late in the fall semester, and applying is much more than filling out an application. In Eco/Evo and related disciplines, you won’t get accepted into a program unless you have corresponded with a potential advisor and they have the space and funding to take you into their lab. This involves a lot of thought about what you want to do and connecting with people who you can work with. To do this process well, it helps to have advising throughout the process, ideally from a research mentor. There are (stupid) standardized tests that programs want you to take, and getting your application statements ready isn’t something that happens overnight. Also, you will need letters of recommendation, and you should give the people writing them a few weeks. But the real work involves being in communication with the people and programs that you are applying to. This involves discipline-specific customs and conventions, and this is why you need to work with someone who can navigate you through the process.
Summer research programs, like REUs
You should be looking for programs in late Fall and over the holidays. Application deadlines tend to be in very early Spring semester (for example, REUs are often mid-February). Institutions all over the US run REU programs, and some of them are in international locations. If you’re planning to investigate your summer research opportunities after you get settled into Spring Semester, you’re probably too late.
Applications for graduate fellowships tend to happen before applying for graduate programs. For example, the NSF Graduate Fellowship application deadline in in the 3rd week of October. It’s a good idea to prepare for these things in several months in advance, up to 18 months before you intend to start grad school. Crazy, huh? For example, if you are one of the lucky few who can graduate in four years, then you should seriously plan to apply for graduate fellowships in the Spring of your junior year, because this happens in the first half of the Fall of your senior year. But if you find yourself in early September, that still gives you just over a month to write your statements and get letter-writers.
Presenting at a national conference
Deadlines to give a poster or a talk at a conference tend are usually about six months before the conference itself. (For example, the Ecological Society of America meets in August, and the abstract deadline is in February.) If you register a couple months in advance of meetings, the cost is usually lower. Be sure to talk with your research supervisor about conferences well in advance! Juggling funding for meeting travel can be hard, with advances and reimbursements might being difficult and not understanding of your challenges and constraints. Be sure to look into things up front, about when and how your expenses will be paid (or not) or reimbursed.
Finding a research lab
Are you looking for research opportunities during the academic year as an undergraduate? You should start now. Seriously, the sooner the better! While some folks want students to have a certain courses under their belt before taking them into the lab, others are keen to take on motivated students early on because they allows them to get more science done. If you only have one year left in college, then starting out in someone’s lab is rather late. As far as I’m concerned, the earlier the better, and I think a lot of professors agree with me. It can’t hurt to ask.
There’s a lot of ground I’m not covering. If you’d like to provide input on something, or have some wisdom to share, or have some questions, that’s what comments are for!