twitter thinks I should write about REU apps because its app szn, and who am I to disagree? For the uninitiated, an REU is a Research Opportunity for Undergraduates. These can be institutionally funded, federal agency funded, or NSF funded. In fact, NSF has a list of REUs on their website.
I actually think it’s pretty important for PIs to explain to their students-or at least, to their advisees-what REUs are, what they mean, and how to find them. But, once you do have students interested in REU’s, here’s what I think are the do and do nots of the REU application process.
1.Do: Start your search for REUs early–I started looking in October, and had most of my initial application materials together by January. This made it easy to determine which apps I would put the most effort into, and time to find letters of recommendation writers. Also, don’t limit your search to just EXACT TINY THING you want to study. I’m not saying that if you’re interested in biomedicine, to go out and do a physics REU. But, for example, I am a biogeochemist–so I applied to REUs in both terrestrial and aquatic biogeochemistry, with people who focused on the cycling of different elements and nutrients. Your undergrad education is supposed to give you breadth in your subject of study: REU’s are meant more to give you depth, and help you figure out what you truly want to study in the future.
Don’t: Wait until Jan 1st to start looking for REU positions. There are a lot of kinds of REUs out there, and it will take time for you and your advisor to filter out the ones you really want to fight for. Additionally, professors are more likely to write you letters of rec if you give them at least two weeks lee-way time. The earliest apps close Feb1st-14th, so keep this in mind.
2.Do: Apply to multiple REUs. I know this sounds hard on top of all your classes, but you really cannot put all your eggs in one basket on this one. For my NSF REU at Marine Biological Labs, there were so many applicants that there were only two spots left by the closing date. Try applying to 4-6 REUs at least. For me, I applied to four REUs my junior year- 2 were “reaches”, one was a “probably”, and one was a “safety”. “Reach” ones are REU’s at prestigious universities or research stations–these ones need near-perfect apps sent in before the closing date, with glowing letters of rec and a lot of luck to get in. “Probably” ones are where you feel confident in your app and your fit in the program. “Safety” apps are the ones where you send them places without a real emotional stake if you lose out. This isn’t to mean that you don’t put your all into the app. What I mean is, you would be happy to work here even if it doesn’t fit your personal research agenda entirely; but you won’t be emotionally devastated either if you don’t get in. For me, that meant I applied to an aquatic biogeochemistry REU at a freshwater lab–I would’ve loved to work in that setting with those people, but I understood their decision when they told my terrestrial biogeochemistry-looking self that I wasn’t selected.
The easiest way to apply to multiple REUs while taking classes is to give yourself at least a week to focus on each application-so it helps to start your search early. It also helps to make a general working body for your personal statement, which is then nuanced with the details specific to each REU position. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel for each personal statement.
Don’t: Apply to only one REU. When I applied to my REUs at MBL and RMBL, there was a 2.6% chance of getting in. For each REU, there were 8-12 spots and hundreds of applicants. The odds are not automatically in your favor, and you need to maximize your chances by applying to as many REU’s as you and your advisor feel confident in.
3. Do: Write a personal statement that tells a narrative of who you are, the research you love, and why you’re a good candidate for this program. Make a point about why X mentor at this REU is a great match for you, and what you plan on doing with that research experience. Let the reviewers know how this REU experience will genuinely help you and your career goals. Make sure the organization of your personal statement is tight, and its flow smooth. Reviewers, especially for competitive REUs, are looking for any excuse to axe you from the applicant pool–make them stumble in their search by ensuring your statement is golden. Go to the writing center, swap with peers, and finally try and go over your statement with your advisor before you hit that submit button.
Don’t: Write a personal statement that is a laundry list of your skills and the classes you’ve taken.
4. Do: Rework your CV to highlight your prior experiences, your skillset, and your publications first.
Don’t: just throw a CV onto the application that you haven’t looked at since Flume was popular. Update your CV at least once a semester and then once again before you finalize your personal statement(s) for your REU to ensure the information is conveyed well, and attractively. Sarah Myhre has a great one.
5. Do: Ask for letters of rec from professors who you did good class work for, who you have built up a good rapport through office hour talk or similar small talks, and who you trust on a day-to-day basis. Give them a month, or at least two weeks to write your letters, remind them when they’re due, and if you want them to highlight something specific about your work.
Don’t: Ask that one professor whose class you did mediocre in freshman year to write you a letter of rec, a week before the app is due. They probably won’t say yes; but even if they did, they wouldn’t actually be able to write you a good letter of rec. They would write you a bad one, and it doesn’t matter what you say about yourself in a personal statement if your letters of rec are trash. My letters of rec literally saved my PINEMAP REU after I bombed the interview with the PI, so take these seriously.
6: Do: Believe in yourself. I know that especially for URM students, REUs can be really tough in ways that aren’t as visible or visceral for people already familiar with maneuvering around academia.
For me, it was really hard to justify to my family that I wasn’t coming home for the summer. My first REU also didn’t cover my housing or food costs-it just paid us a big stipend over 8 months. That lack of security was scary to face without my family’s emotional support; and it was only exacerbated by the shame I felt everytime I had to ask my stepdad for grocery money after rent ate away my stipend. However, my lab mates from my REU were always there to help me. My lab mates in Forestry Service often brought extra food with them to the field to share with us undergrads; and my office mates and I in Forestry Service often exchanged food with one another to cheer each other up.
My family also didn’t really know how to help me secure housing or help me move-my mom has only ever lived with my grandparents and I or her husband. For months, I alone scrambled around Craigslist and other rental sites to find housing, to little avail. I ended up renting a room through the lab I worked in and moving down to Raleigh in a Greyhound bus. It felt insurmountable to think about, but once I actually reached out to my lab for help finding housing, they helped me fit everything into place. Other REU’s cover housing, food, and even travel for you–if you win one of these, the leap away from home will be much easier and worth it.
REUs can also be lonely; especially if your cohort is spread out across multiple universities, or if you don’t see yourself reflected in your cohort. However, REUs are a chance for deep introspection away from factors that might otherwise be influencing you (like a domineering advisor or parent). REUs are a chance away from home, and from your home institutions, for you to figure out both the scientist and the person you really want to be. When you feel lonely or lost in the city or in the lab, try to grapple with that feeling and contextualize it. When I was alone in Raleigh for my first REU, I used to split my time evenly between the bench lab work, my time in my office blogging, and doing data sorting for the Forestry Service. However, it was a 25 minute walk from my lab space to the space to my office space. I would often use that time to think about how the lab work I was doing made me feel, how I felt about going to the office to work, and how I felt about the relationships I was forming in the lab and in this REU. I encourage you, especially in the early weeks of the REU, to do this kind of deep thinking.
It’s also hard to feel accepted at a scientist at some elite institutions, where a lot of people rest on where they got their degrees and not necessarily on how inclusive their praxis is. When I was at MBL, I talked to David Kingsley about not feeling accepted in academia. He gave me a good piece of advice: don’t let how other people see you define how you see yourself, and don’t let it limit who you talk to. If you carry yourself confidently in the face of people who won’t accept your value as a URM scientist, the good people will tend to gravitate towards you. I will admit that this can be really hard; and if you ever feel that an REU situation is becoming toxic, its okay to leave.
Don’t: Be too hard on yourself, isolate yourself, or otherwise feel that you need to apply to or stay in an REU because “people expect it from me” or “its the only way to get into grad school”. If you are applying to spend 10-14 weeks away from your family or your home institution, make sure its because you believe fundamentally that the program you’re committing to will help you achieve your long term goals.
This blog was way longer than I thought it would be. tl;dr: work hard on a half dozen applications, get letters of rec from faculty you trust, and both believe in and listen to yourself. Other than that, may the odds ever be in your favor.
p.s. It’s okay if you win an REU, do it, and don’t love it. It’s okay to leave a bad REU. And if you end up like me–sticking it through a toxic REU to find yourself questioning everything that ever made you love science-reach out to the people you love. Reach out to people like me who’ve been through it. I promise we will be here to help, to uplift you, and do whatever we can to rebuild you and help you find peace.