The Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program is administered by the U.S. National Science Foundation and is an incredible way to gain research experience while still in college. If you are a sophomore or junior I heavily recommend you look into this. I spend a lot of time on this blog advocating for undergraduate research opportunities on your home campus, but with an REU you can study any of a wide variety of research topics at another institution. Plus you’ll probably get paid!
How does the program work? First off, because this is a U.S. federal program, you need to be either a citizen or permanent resident of the U.S. or one of its territories. This is true even if the research will take place in another country. Essentially, the NSF funds many “REU sites,” which are hosted by specific labs or departments at different colleges or universities. Every year these sites will solicit applications from undergraduate students across the country. A handful of students will be selected (usually in the neighborhood of ten, depending on the site) to travel to the REU site, and live and work there for a few months. Most programs are between twelve and sixteen weeks long during summer break, although some take place during a full semester. Exactly what you’ll be doing varies from site to site, but the general idea is to give students a taste of life as a graduate student researcher. You will be conducting a research project under the direction of a professor and may be working alongside his or her graduate students. Depending on how your project goes you may even have the chance to present at a conference or publish your work! Some REU sites may offer additional programming, such as research seminars, networking events, or tours of labs or other facilities. You’ll also have plenty of downtime with your REU cohort, and I suggest you try to make friends because these may be your future professional colleagues! Lastly, you will likely receive a stipend for your work. Some sites provide room and board for their students, others house them but don’t pay for food, and still others require you to find your own housing but may assist you financially with this. The exact rate of pay varies depending on these and other variables, but the aim is to make sure students won’t turn down an REU opportunity because they need to make money at a summer job.
If this sounds exciting to you, or if you’re considering a research career, I heavily recommend you apply to some REU sites! The advice my undergraduate research mentor gave me during my junior year was to “apply to every REU program that interests you, even a little bit. Even if the subject isn’t exactly what you want to make a career studying, the research experience will be pivotal!” Every site has its own application and deadline, but for the most part everything is due around winter break (at least for the summer programs). Most REU sites either prefer or outright require that students be entering their final year of college, so most people apply during their junior year for the following summer. When you apply you will probably be asked to identify one or more professors at the site you would like to work with. Put some time and effort into this process. Read a paper or two of theirs, and most importantly, be able to explain why you are interested in their work! Nothing will shoot down your application faster than listing a specific researcher as your first choice, but when asked why responding with “Their research is really interesting to me.” You should also know that these programs are selective. Like really selective. In my college social circles people would apply to ten or more different REU sites, hoping to get into just one. I don’t have access to any large-scale metrics, but I am aware of one REU site that had more than 400 applicants for about twelve positions in 2017. I don’t know for a fact that this is typical of all REU sites, but it illustrates my point. I don’t bring this up to discourage you, but if you are serious about landing a spot in one of these programs you need to put real effort into the applications. I suggest making a list of all the programs you’d like to apply to well in advance, then submitting one application each weekend in late fall. You can then save the last few for winter break. Separate your applications with enough time that you don’t burn out and start phoning it in.
The REU program is an amazing opportunity to get varied research experience before finishing college, and is a good way to feel out whether graduate study is right for you. It’s no walk in the park to get in, but the connections, experience, and pay are all good enough that you should give it a shot! If you’re sold and are chomping at the bit to find an REU site, check the NSF website and good luck!
Photo Credits to Pexels and the National Science Foundation