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REUs - Research Experiences for Undergrads

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REUs or Research Experiences for Undergraduates

What is an REU?

An REU is a Research Experience for Undergraduates.  These are competitive summer research programs for undergraduates studying any STEM disciplines.  Usually they are 8-10 weeks long.  Sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) grant program, they are hosted in various universities & research laboratories around the country.  Each is associated with a specific research project, where the student can work closely with faculty and other researchers.  Students are granted stipends and, in many cases, assistance with housing and travel.   The programs are small, usually with 8-10 students per program.
 

Why do an REU?

REU’s offer many benefits to students. These include:

  • Gain hands-on experience in an area of interest
    • Develop new analytical skills & lab experience
  • Meet and work with other students and faculty who share your interests
  • Possibility of getting published for your research work
  • Help solidify your career direction
  • Find a graduate research program
    • Enhance likelihood of being admitted to grad program
    • Enhance likelihood of winning fellowships
    • Find a graduate research advisor/mentor
  • Travel
  • Work in different environments
  • Have fun – students bond and enjoy activities outside of the workplace
     

What is Provided?

Typically the REU sponsor provides some or all of the following:

  • Research stipend – payment for your work.  This can be given as a one-time payment, or spread throughout the length of the experience.
  • Housing, often at the university at which you’ll be working.
  • Meal stipend
  • Possible travel to and from REU site
  • Total package range from $3,000-$6,000+
     

Common Programmatic Elements

In addition to the work itself, most REU’s offer the following elements:

  • Social events for students
  • Training (safety/ethics)
  • Seminars and/or conferences for students to gain more knowledge of the area in which they’re working
  • Final poster session at which students present their work to faculty and program sponsors
  • There may also be an opportunity to attend and even present at a national conference in your research area.
     

Eligibility Requirements

Because programs are funded by federal money, REU’s are open to U.S. citizens or permanent residents only.  In addition:

  • Graduating seniors not normally eligible; you must be coming back to campus to finish your studies
  • Some require a certain GPA (>3.2)
  • May require certain academic preparation
  • Some programs may have additional requirements
     

How to Find an REU

The majority of REU’s are sponsored by the NSF, and can be found on their website.  Additional opportunities can be found on the websites below.

How to Apply

  • Individual REU programs have websites, which can be accessed through the NSF website. Application materials should be available in November each year.
  • The application deadline is typically in late January or February.
  • There is no application fee.
  • Complete the application for each REU in which you’re interested.  Because of heavy competition, it’s recommended you apply to as many as possible, to increase your chances of being accepted into a program.
  • You will have to complete an essay as part of your application; in some cases there may be two essays – a career-related and a personal essay.  In general, you’ll want to say why you’re interested in and a good fit for this particular program. Why are you the best candidate? What unique story do you bring, including any challenges or struggles you’ve overcome.
  • You’ll also have to get letters of recommendation; as least two, and maybe more.  In most cases these will be faculty recommendations, who can speak to your interest and passion for the field, and your academic abilities.
  • Your transcript will most likely have to be included (an unofficial transcript may be acceptable).  Get your transcript from the Registrar’s Office.
  • Make every effort to individualize yourself; the hiring committees look at the whole student.  With students taking the same overall coursework and doing similar labs, you have to make yourself stand out. 
    • Think about what makes you unique and sets you apart from other students.  For example, do you have any interesting hobbies?  Have you done volunteer work related to your interests? 
  • There is a universal date to commit to a program, typically in March.  Be sure to keep track of all deadline dates.
     

Advice

  • Do your research on the REU programs to which you plan to apply.  Review the program website and all specific details, so you know what the REU will entail.
    • Don’t be afraid to email and/or call program directors; this will give you a chance to introduce yourself and make a preliminary connection. 
    • Ask what skills they’re looking for, and for more information on the project; this will help you target your essay to the specific REU.
  • Application process is very competitive (often hundreds of applications are received for some REU’s)
    • Apply to as many REU’s as possible; a minimum of three is recommended, but more will give you a better chance to secure a position.
    • More “desirable” locations get more applicants, so consider locations that might not be as popular, to increase your chances of being accepted.
    • Check for brand new programs; the start date of the program is listed in the abstract of award.  Newer programs often get fewer applicants as they aren’t established yet, and this might increase your chances of being accepted.
  • Set up a timeline – start early!  The process takes a while to complete.
  • Respect deadlines
    • Get all your application materials submitted by the deadline
    • Confirm with each REU that your application is complete
    • Follow-up with your reference letter writers to remind them of upcoming deadines
  • One size does not fit all
    • Personalize your essay to each program
      • What are your long term career goals and how does this program tie into them?
      • Is this program your first choice?  Why?
  • Discuss your research interests with faculty; they may be able to recommend good REU’s for your skills and interests.
  • Find faculty who can write strong letters of recommendation.  Be specific and provide detailed information about what programs you’re applying to, so they can help match your abilities and aptitude to the program’s requirements and area of focus.
  • Work on your statement of academic, career, and research goals.  How do you anticipate the REU help you achieve your goals?
  • Apply early; this can give you the edge. Program directors and committees often begin reviewing applications as they come in, and once they fill their available spaces, there won’t be any additional opportunities. Demonstrate your initiative and interest in the program by applying before the deadline.
     

Who Can Help?

  • Faculty – help you determine potential REU’s that are a good fit, write recommendation letters, read your personal essay.
  • Academic Advisor – help you prepare your application materials, read your personal essay.
  • Career services office – post REU opportunities on Handshake, help you prepare your application materials, read your personal essay.
     

Make the Most of Your REU

  • Take good notes and learn as much as you can.
  • Build a tool box of skills, both technical or lab related, as well as interpersonal skills including teamwork, to take into your next experience.
  • Use REUs as a stepping stone to graduate school; you’ll develop in-depth knowledge and demonstrated experience in a specific focus area that will make you a good candidate for a graduate school program.
  • Make strategic connections with professors, program sponsors, and teammates.  You may be able to use for references, graduate school contacts, or connections to jobs.
  • Stay in contact with other students, your mentor, and your supervisor; they are now part of your network!
     

Student Experience:  Spencer Richman (Bioinformatics)

I spent this summer at Boston University, in the BRITE (Bioinformatics Research and Interdisciplinary Training Experience) REU. I was in the lab of Dr. Andrew Emili at the Center for Network Systems Biology, where I worked to develop methods for the analysis of complex metabolomic mass spectrometry data. While there, I was able to experience the full culture of Boston  and explore the city both in my free time and as part of scheduled events for the program. (The food was by far one of the most enjoyable parts of the experience). By participating in the program, I not only made many valuable professional and academic contacts, but also met many fellow program members that I believe will be lifelong friends.  

As far as tips for students, I have a few recommendations:

  • Start working on your application early.
  • Don't be afraid to follow up with the program director(s) about the status of your application, I believe that was one of the major factors in my acceptance.
  • Enjoy your time, but consider your budget vs. your stipend. Don't accidentally spend half of your stipend on food... like a "friend" of mine did...
     

Student Experience:  Rachel Fasiczka (Biotechnology & Molecular Bioscience)

The program was based out of Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Maine. I worked in a bioinformatics laboratory where I learned how to use available online tools. I studied the evolutionary trajectory of a protein involved in healing and regeneration call the mechanistic Target of Rapamycin. I looked at how conserved the protein's sequence was across and within different animal phyla. 

A lot of other students in the program worked in wet labs. They worked on zebrafish regeneration so there was a variety of projects available.

Highlights: I really liked the location of where the program was. It was basically in Acadia National Park so on weekends all of the students would go hiking and swimming together. I enjoyed getting to know students from all over the country and am still in contact with a number of them. I also really liked the research I was doing.  

Advice: apply to programs. There's a huge variety of research opportunities in diverse places. Lots of the programs give a stipend for housing and reimburse travel. It also looks really good on a resume to show you have research experience outside of your home institution.