University Affairs – Mitacs paid research internships are still among the best

The Mitacs-Accelerate program was created in 1999 to connect graduate-level students with companies interested in having students work with them on business-related research projects. Jointly funded by the federal and provincial governments, last year it organized 1,750 internships, a number it hopes to bring to 2,000 this year.

Students take up a business problem or research question posed by a partner company. The company and Mitacs each contribute $7,500 to the four-month internship, which goes to the student’s academic supervisor as a grant. Students receive a minimum of $10,000, with any remaining funds going towards other direct costs of the research. About 80 percent of students eventually focus their thesis on something inspired by their internship, says Mitacs CEO and scientific director Arvind Gupta, who also teaches computer science at the University of British Columbia.

Companies are free to submit potential research projects to the program, but are vetted through a peer-review process to ensure that they are worthwhile problems to investigate and are properly matched to the student’s skill set and educational goals.

“If you do it right, we’ve got great success,” says Dr. Gupta, adding he’s “not a fan” of unpaid internships. “Last year we were in a unique situation where we had too many projects and not enough students.”
Eric Davies, a PhD candidate in forestry at the University of Toronto, brought his own research question to Mitacs and partnered with, an arborist company specializing in urban tree health. Mr. Davies studied the benefits of native versus non-native trees for local ecology as well as the effects of fertilization, issues was interested in. Mr. Davies is using his findings as a key chapter in his final thesis.

His experience may also help with future job prospects. “It opened my eyes to other opportunities,” Mr. Davies says, pointing to an upcoming international initiative to promote common standards in sustainable green landscaping as an example. “There are so many businesses that will really be in need of this kind of stuff.”

Science, engineering and technology research has been a big part of the Mitacs-Accelerate program, but it is now beginning a “big push” into social sciences, traditionally a harder area for generating paid internship opportunities. Past projects have included an evaluation of First Nations heritage as the basis for land use planning (done for a First Nations forestry license partnership), a psychology research project into eye movements in gaming, and alternative methods of labour organization and recruitment to prevent the exploitation of migrant workers. The organization is also encountering more research requests requiring a team of researchers, which sometimes turn into interdisciplinary projects, combining the skills of scientists with social scientists.

“My gut tells me that once we actually figure this out, we’re going to find a lot more projects than we ever imagined,” says Dr. Gupta.

By Moira MacDonald
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