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.
12 years ago