Monday, January 28, 2008


A week or so ago I went to a talk that wasn't in my field but that was being given by someone who -- a long time ago, as an undergraduate -- had participated in a summer research program that I had created and then directed for many years. These summer internship programs (Research Experiences for Undergraduates, or REU, to use NSF-speak) have been proliferating in the last decade or so, and this is a great thing.

At the beginning of the talk, the speaker credited the internship program with inspiring his decision to go to graduate school in Science, get a Ph.D., and pursue an academic career. The speaker's main inspiration was his internship advisor, but I considered myself to have been indirectly thanked anyway, and that felt good.

Over the last 10 years or so, some of my colleagues and I have tried to track as many of our former interns as possible to see what career paths they have followed. It is not surprising that so many have continued their education and pursued academic careers -- these internships attract students who are starting to think they might want to go to graduate school. Even so, the results of surveys we give the interns indicate that a significant number are unsure going into the summer program, and are using the internship specifically to test the waters and see if research is something they want to do.

It is therefore encouraging that even after a summer of challenging research experiences, so many undergraduate students are interested in continuing on to a career in Science. Undergraduate courses are important and can be inspiring in their own way, but there's nothing like doing research to really see the exciting possibilities.


Ole Phat Stu said...

FWIW the German word for 'Regret' is REUE ;-)

Anonymous said...

I went through the REU program and it was a major factor in my decision to continue on into PhD research. My REU not only gave me a taste of real research, but exposed me to what life was like for postdocs and researchers. I did my undergrad at a non-research university, so I really didn't know what the research science environment was like. I'm currently on a national postdoctoral fellowship. I'm glad to hear that the REU program is going strong!

Cherish said...

I wish they had more programs like REUs for younger students. I had no intention of going into science when I was in high school. I thought science was boring and formulaic. (You already know how everything will end up, right?)

To boost my chances of getting into a good college, I applied to go to a summer school (sponsored by the state) that put kids into advanced math courses or into science labs to do research. I was chosen and ended up in being stuck on the science side. I really enjoyed doing the research I was assigned (in botany), but I got even more excited about some research my friend was doing in physics.

That completely changed my mind about going into science. I wish there were more programs like that for high school kids. I'm sure that would plant the seed for a lot of them who, like me, thought science was boring and predictable. Even for those who are already interested, it could be good confirmation they're headed down the right path. (Of the 20 kids in science, at least a quarter have earned doctorates.)

The other nice thing was that I met dean of the college of science at the local college who helped me a lot with career planning/college prep things. He didn't have to. He certainly had more things on his plate than to deal with a really confused teenager. But I sure appreciate that he did.

ARL said...

In my opinion, REUs prove nothing, at least in most cases.

1) 2-3 months is not enough time to do a project similar to a graduate school project. If some students get lucky, their REU advisor might have 1-2 things to build, small (compared to the size of the whole project) or will try to just get them familiar with equipment and names. I am talking about experimental REUs, I can't really say much about theoretical REUs. I am not even sure they exist!

2) Life during REU cannot compare to life in grad school. I would like to know how many REU students spend nights without sleeping, working and worrying about when they'll be able to finish and graduate. People have commented in this blog about how much they hated grad school. I think this is a common trend, no matter the area you are in.

3) Some of the students that go for an REU might do it to "test the waters", but what I've seen is that most of the students (that I know) go for it because that WILL get them into grad school. Incoherent Ponderer has a post on grad admissions to his department (and probably most departments) and how they give priority to research experience. Probably many of their domestic applicants have REUs.

On the other hand and to be fair, the students that go for an REU are probably the "best" students, the ones that would give up one summer to go work instead of "enjoying" their life. If this is the case, then those students would be the ones applying to grad school whether there are or aren't REU programs.

Maybe you know better, but I can't seem to find really positive things about REUs, other than they look good on paper.

Rhoda said...

On the less-positive side, I was unhappy to hear that the REU I participated in after my freshman year (at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks) has recently been canceled, supposedly because it didn't meet with some set of specific criteria involving group work between the interns, presentations, etc. When I look back on the experience it involved ALL those things, but in organic, evolving ways. It bothers me that the checklist-mentality of NSF would chuck out such a great program, one that has put quite a few people into the tenure track, including myself.

Thanks for all the thought you put in your blog - it is very enjoyable to read!

ScienceGirl said...

I too used an REU-like program to test the waters before going to grad school; coming from a small non-research school, I was particularly glad that R1 profs make an effort to expose undergrads to interesting work.

Eric said...

My father has a PhD in engineering and I think I would have gone to grad school no matter what. But, I participated in REU programs every summer starting with the summer before I entered college. I also did research during the school year for a while as an undergrad. These experiences helped influence me to be an experimentalist. They also showed me a few areas of science I did not want to do, enjoyable as they were during the REU. At the times I was doing these REU's, I wasn't thinking of them as ways to get to grad school, although once I was applying to grad schools it became obvious these were good experiences to have had.

Now I'm a professor and I usually have 2-4 undergrads working in my lab throughout the year. I agree that three months is not long enough to make real progress on a project, although there have been a few exceptions in my group.

One thing that is hard to decide for me: am I better off working with undergrads from my school during the summer, or taking in students from other schools who apply to our REU program? I know the students from my school much better, and can also entice them to continue their projects during the school year. On the other hand, part of the point of an REU is to expose students from elsewhere to your school and to give them an experience of being somewhere else for the summer.

Anonymous said...

What are REU's supposed to be proving? REU's may not be a grad student experience, but certainly doing them has to gain one more insight than not doing them, no?

I have started to note that undergrad research experience has basically become a requirement for our grad program (especially if you are at an R1 already). In general, I can't say I think this is a bad thing, though it does delay student's entry into the program.

My guess is that most successful scientists would have thought that spending a summer in a good lab was indeed enjoying life. FSP brings little shimmers of this into her posts -- the joy of having time to work in the lab, the joy of putting together a new presentation on new stuff. People who do science successfully usually really enjoy, truly enjoy, big parts of it. They're not putting in their dues waiting for some reward at the end.

Folks in an REU who don't come out with that feeling need to think about their plans. People who come out with it, probably should think, too, but joy should be part of the work.

Ms.PhD said...

I tend to side with the person who said it can't remotely prepare you for what grad school (and god forbid, postdoc) would be like.

But this is mostly due to an issue I've blogged about before- the way we tend to 'shelter' our younger students from the realities of academic life, and pretend like it's all fun and glory.

Really wish people had been more honest with me when I was starting out. And yes, there are high school programs for kids who are interested in science. The main problems are that your typical high school science teacher is not a scientist, and if you don't *know* you're interested in science, you have to be 'lucky' enough to have that forced up on you (I did) because you're one of the 'best' students.

Ah youth. Would that I could do it all over again- except I wouldn't.

Dana said...

I too participated in an REU program and it helped me decide to go to grad school. It isn't so much that the experience is like grad school as it is that you get to see first hand what life it like for the grad students in the lab you work in. Doing the research is great in your development as a scientist, but interacting with the grad students and research professors is in some ways more important as you think about whether you can imagine yourself in the same place in a year or two.

Hanna said...


So, have you actually participated in an REU, from either end?

Point 3) is directly refuted in FSP's post, where she says that, according to survey results, there are a significant number of students testing the water.

Also, I can tell you that theoretically REUs in math exist. Math REUs are hard to structure because there's no lab component to set the students up with. They often end up being more "independent reading" projects rather than actual new research. (I went to one of the few math REUs that really are doing research of math at a level that's publishable in regular journals).

Yes, REUs aren't _exactly like grad school_, but I don't think anyone's claiming they are, or need to be in order to be useful. They're very different from taking a class--you're studying a much more specific subject in much more depth. It's an experience many of us (particularly those of us from non-research schools) wouldn't have had at our own institution. It also increases your network--you meet professors and students who may be very different from those at your school. We spent a lot of the time at my program talking about grad school--where we might want to apply (and why), what we needed to do to be prepared, etc. Since only two of my classmates at my undergrad were also applying to math grad schools, this was extremely helpful for me.

I know that my own REU was great. I went in wondering how one does research in math, and came out with a deeper knowledge of a field similar to the one I'm in now, and more excited about doing math.

Twice said...

I'm not sure why anyone would be negative about REUs. While I agree that the progress that can be made in 2-3 months is small for the lab's overall research program, this can be mitigated somewhat by careful choice and definitions of the projects assigned to the student.

In my experience, REUs make a huge impact on the undergrads themselves. Maybe it doesn't show them all the things one could easily hate about graduate school, but it does let them experience a little more independence in the lab, work on a project with an unknown outcome, and see if they like science/research/lab work enough to consider doing it 60-80 hours a week. Not every student finds the experience to be transforming, but many do.

On the host lab, in the best situations, there can be positive and enjoyable mentoring and management experiences for graduate students and post docs (if they do it voluntarily, rather than being "told" to do it), and it is fairly short term if things are not so enjoyable. Mentoring undergraduate researchers is looked upon favorably by hiring committees at Primarily Undergraduate Institutions, should the grad students or post docs be interested in that route.

goatinacoat said...

I must be an exception to arl’s comment. I participated in a RUE at the end of the 2nd year of my BSc and it was one of the best life choices I have made. I was unsure whether I wanted to do zoology or physiology and I was generally a confused student. I hadn’t even considered graduate possibilities: all I knew was that I wanted to research “how biological things work” and get through my undergraduate degree. I had poor-average grades but I emailed a few institutes to see if they would take me on anyway. I was overwhelmed at the offers I received, but I found a neurophysiology lab and spent most of my 8 weeks there helping wherever possible in as many experiments as they could find me and chatting to as many people as I could. Simply being surrounded by people excited by research was inspiring for me and was a huge motivator in me following physiology research. When I went back to study again I suddenly became a top grader: I understood why my lecturers were teaching what they were teaching me and I could relate my lab classes to my real research experiences. My studies had context for a change. I’ve been working in research for the past two years and I’m about to start a PhD, but I always thank my RUE supervisor giving me the time and showing me how exciting - and tedious! - research can be. I think I would have dropped out and be washing dishes for the rest of my life otherwise.

EcoGeoFemme said...

My institution doesn't do REU but has a a similar 10 week undergrad internship. It's great. It's how we get extra labor, but we have to assign a project with enough substance for the student to give a presentation or write a paper. It's win-win.

A sumemr internship is not like grad school, but it does give students a chance to see what it means to do research, which they may not get exposed to any other way. We try hard to not shelter our interns from the really tedious stuff too much, because that is a big part of doing research. Yet, we try to give them a small piece of a bigger project so they see the context for the boring work.

ARL said...

Hanna, I have not participated as a student doing an REU nor as a advisor for an REU student. However, I have been the grad student that somehow ended up working with some of the REU students. About point 3, I wrote: the students I know have done REUs, and out of them most of them did it to write it in the grad school application and "guarantee" admission.

I never said that conceptually REUs were a bad idea. They might be a good idea but is badly implemented. I think in practice they are for the most part a resume-boosting technique and not so much a learning experience. Mostly because of the limited time for each project. I went to a school with no research not REU program, but they compensated by allowing students to actually go to another university (anywhere in the world by the way) for up to 1 year to engage in research.

Regarding REU being like grad school. My comment arise from FSP point about REU students deciding on grad school. If this is the case, then it is a very bad service REU programs are doing. You might even call it tricking students, I would like to see statistics on grad students getting as much help as undergrad, REU ones.

Dana's comment made me think. Maybe REU professors actually care about their students. In my experience, 80% or more of the grad students I know complain about the lack of support they have in their research group. Since I didn't do an REU, I can't comment exactly on the experience. But, after being a grad student I really hope undergrads get a more realistic view of what's waiting for them in grad school!

Anonymous said...

I was planning on a career as a biologist - until I had a small ecology class that took us out into the field repeatedly and I hated it. The instructor told some stories about her (very interesting) research and when she mentioned what the data collection involved - something about being out in fields for days on end - it hit me that as much as the topics were intellectually stimulating, I would hate doing the actual research part itself. Being in an actual lab didn't appeal to me either.

Many (most) undergraduates haven't thought about their career path in terms of the day-to-day features that the job involves. And they don't know what it is that academics actually do (unless they come from an academic family). A REU program can answer tons of questions these kids hadn't even thought to ask - and it weeds out the ones who might otherwise be wasting their (and your) time.

ExtraordinaryCollegeStudent said...

I find that my professors are the people whom I will miss the MOST when I graduate and move away. More than my parents. You all have no idea how influential you have been in our lives; you are responsible in some cases for opening up new worlds of knowledge to us.

Yvette said...

I found arl's perspective interesting because I'm plowing through my own REU applications right now. I can't say I know of anyone who deliberately applied to them "just" so they would get into grad school (though by this point it'd be suicidal to apply to grad school without research experience, seems like), but then I attend a research university where we all do research so perhaps this is a bit different. I do think that REUs are particularly important for students at universities who might not have the chance to be exposed to research, though, because it really is an important thing to get your hands dirty in a lab and see how you like it.

My own motivation on the REU end of things for applying is because I know I'd spend the summer in a lab because that's what I enjoy doing, so it's either the lab at my campus I've spent two years in or somewhere new where I might be exposed to stuff I wasn't exposed to before. As I'm not entirely certain what I want to be doing just yet when it comes time to grad school, now seems as good a time as any to look into it.

Mikael said...

Only vaguely similar - I'm currently organizing here at my university the 8th Junior Mathematical Congress. I found, when talking about it during job interviews, that the best way to describe it to US-based mathematicians was as a math-camp where REU-like projects for high school students were presented.

And that works surprisingly well - I've been involved with them for about 10 years now, and a lot of my own passion for mathematics is due to these.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to do an REU the summer of my junior year, but my undergraduate employer failed to send in my recommendation on time. I really wish that he hadn't messed that up, because I think that I would have gotten a job or applied to less prestigious schools. I am over my head here and swiftly turning into the type of student that FSP would want a refund for hiring.

Karina said...

I loved the REU program I participated in. I went to a small liberal arts college where they did some student/faculty research collaboration, but it was so enlightening for me to spend time at a big university. I find each department has their own culture and paradigms. As an undergraduate, I thought it was simply fascinating listening to people talk about the topics in a slightly different way. I am now a TA in grad school and I encourage all of my students to consider REUs and other internships for the summer. The more we expose students to the possibilities in science (which don't all mean grad school) and help them make informed career decision, I think the better off students will be.

Carrie said...

Add me to the list of those with a great REU experience. I went to a small liberal arts undergrad univ, and the summer program showed me what it was like to do research for a living. Mine was at a National Lab, so I also got exposure non-academic research, which in hindsight was a fortuitous opportunity.

Some of the other students in my group realized that they didn't like research, or didn't like that area of research. Which was also a good think to learn in three months rather than 5 years of grad school!

naturalist said...

I'm a researcher at a large government lab, and I got my PhD in 2003. I've mentored 6 undergrads since then.

When I was an undergrad, I did 3 years of research with 3 different groups, before there were organized REU programs. The reason I did it was actually financial as well as scientific - I came from a poor family, and my choice was either find a job in science or wash dishes. I accomplished very little as an undergraduate researcher for my respective groups; I'm sure my advisors thought I was useless. But I learned so, so much - how to do scientific programming, how to solder, how to work with cryogens, cleanrooms, etc. As a woman who played with Barbies rather than working on the family car as a child, I was able to train up on some extremely valuable basic technical skills that most of my male classmates took for granted. I learned what I liked and figured what I didn't want to do. I thought I wanted to be a theorist, but found that - to my great surprise - I enjoyed experimental lab work best! I was lucky to work with a few kindly graduate students who helped me understand how to navigate the process of becoming a scientist. I also had a couple jerky advisors. I look like a girly girl, and many of them treated me like they thought I was neither smart nor useful. I often felt crushed by their negativity.

As a result of my experiences, I really want to make my students' REUs useful and positive. I like seeing disadvantaged students succeed. I really like helping students "see the light" of a career in science or engineering.
I tell my students that yes, insisting on finding an academic job in your specific sub-field can be hard - but there are still very, very few unemployed PhD scientists compared to the general public. You may not have exactly the perfect job, but you'll have a good job making more money than most Americans. That's a helluva lot better than being poor (like I was).

I guess to sum up, undergrad research was crucial to me both financially and scientifically. I am so grateful to my advisors they let me work for them instead of washing dishes, even if they were sometimes jerks. The experience was life-altering.

Anonymous said...

I also went through an REU and I felt I needed to comment on this subject. I would disagree with many of ARL's comments

1. In my case, over the course of the ten week program I was directly involved with the main experiment my group was working on, including preparing most of the samples used in the main experiment and even running preliminary experiments, which is resulting in a publication. I am also still currently contributing to the experiment, even after my ten weeks. As for theoretical REUs I know quite a few students that were also involved in this REU were involved in theoretical sciences.

2. As for what grad school is really like i do know i worked several 14 hour days. But I think one of the best resources is the grad students you meet. I know I learned alot from them about what grad school is really like, and they did not sugar coat it.

3. As for giving up the summer and enjoying your life, sure its great if you're taking a cruise or back packing through europe but if you're like me and stuck at home working at a fast food chain I'd rather work somewhere relevant to the field I'm studying.

But Perhaps my experience is in the minority.