Monday, March 30, 2009

Applying to an NSF REU site [Updated]

There's an interesting discussion going on over at Isis's palace regarding the personal statement essays required by many REU sites as part of an application. I run such a site. Following are some thoughts on how (and perhaps how not) to apply to REU sites.

A summer spent at an REU site can be a wonderful experience that can help you decide whether a career in scientific research is for you. Or a career in science in general. That's what the REU program is all about. It's not for padding your CV. Only apply if you're serious about working through the Summer. Working hard. At the end you will have learned a lot. And maybe earned a stellar reference letter or two that will help get you into grad school or where-ever you want to be next.

Keep in mind these sites get a lot of very good applications. It's very competitive. Here the acceptance rate is below 10%.

Choice of Sites
There are oh so many sites to choose from. Choose carefully. Don't spam them with applications. We can see right through that kind of thing.

Apply only to those sites you are truly interested in. And have the background for. Majoring in mediaeval music probably won't be seen as a big plus at that physics site you've applied to.

And don't think you need to attend a site at an Ivy league school. I'm at a state school. Former participants from the site I run have ended up grad students at some of the best schools in the country.

Criteria Used

First, you MUST be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. That's an NSF rule. Can't be bent or broken. Don't bother applying just because you have work authorization. It's not enough. If you're not a citizen you need a green card. Nothing else will do.

Have a decent GPA. I'm afraid anything under 3.0 just isn't looked at. If you're below 3.2 you need a really good explanation for why this doesn't reflect your true potential. We get a lot of applications with GPA's greater than 3.8. It's very, very competitive.

That pesky personal statement essay thingy needs to be good. Truth is, if everything else is stellar you might get away with a poor essay. But by stellar I mean so good every site you apply to calls to offer you a slot with double the stipend of everyone else. Plus accommodations in a five star hotel. That good. You're best bet here is to a) avoid the long list of relatives who have died of assorted diseases you wish to cure, b) avoid the cutsey story about falling in love with the chemistry set you got on your third birthday, and c) tailor your letter to the site you're applying to. Tell us why you want to spend your summer HERE. And read Isis's advice.

Prior research experience. Had a whole bunch? Great! Good for you. Too bad we probably won't take you. The REU program is aimed at giving research experiences to students who have few, if any, opportunities to do research. A little prior research experience is okay. A lot means you might not get an offer. Not all sites conform to this approach, but I have been assured by other REU PI's that not doing so can have serious consequences for the site. For example, not getting the grant that supports it renewed...

And then there are the...

Letters of Recommendation

I cannot overemphasize the importance of your letters of recommendation. These can easily make or break your application. They need to be good. They need to be sent on time (this year I received one a month to the day after the deadline - way after we had sent out offers). They need to be good (did I say that already?). They need to be substantial - two sentences saying you're the best student since the last one they wrote a letter for won't cut it. And they need to be from people who can really say something about your potential in science. Not from relatives (yes, had one of those... Mom was very proud of her little boy). Not from your favorite English professor (I've received many - they're mostly useless*). Not from the manager of the store you've been working in part-time (okay, those are a bit better than useless, but still not great). You will be accepted into an REU site based on your scientific potential. That is what these letters must address. And most of all, they need to be good.

[Update] How We Choose

I forgot to talk about this bit. It's kind of important.

So given the above, how do we choose which applicants to make offers to? I can't speak for other REU sites, but here we try to take a balanced approach. Setting aside criteria like belonging to an under-represented group (a big deal for the NSF), our perfect candidate would be the following: someone with a 4.0 GPA, from a small college, no research experience, professing a unquenchable desire to attend grad school, with stellar letters of recommendation.

We've only ever had a few applicants like that (we've had many come very close). So how do we choose? Well, someone with a 3.8 GPA from a small college would be ranked higher than a 4.0 from an R1 institution (plenty of potential research opportunities). High grades in science courses are more important than high grades in non-science courses. Stellar recommendation letters will trump GPA's to a point. Lack of research opportunities will also trump GPA's to a point. A clearly expressed desire to pursue a scientific career (research or otherwise) ranks high. In the end, it's somewhat subjective. It has to be.

Contacting the Site

It is perfectly okay to contact the REU site you've applied to to make sure all your materials have arrived. Or to find out where they are in the sorting/ranking/making offers process. It is not alright to have someone else contact the site on your behalf. Especially not your Mom. Trust me, that leaves a very, very bad impression.

Declining an Offer

Finally, let's say you're one of the chosen few and receive an offer from one or more REU sites. But you've already committed to another site (or internship). Please, please, please don't wait to decline. As noted by FSP recently, too many (i.e. more than zero) students leave declinations until the last minute, or worse, "forget" to decline offers. If you do this you may well be screwing another student. Someone who really, really wanted to get into site A, but had to accept an offer from their second or third or fourth choice because the acceptance deadline arrived before they received an offer from site A. Even if you're not screwing someone else (and you'll never know if you did), it's just plain common courtesy.

* The letters, not the English professors.


Prof-like Substance said...

Odyssey, thanks for insightful post. I'm curious though about the idea that there are more research opportunities at an R1 for students than at small colleges. At the SLAC I went to I was able to get involved in research between my sophomore and junior year and continued to work in the lab for the rest of the time I was there. The same was true for just about any other student who wanted to do research in science. There were opportunities and many of them led to publications.

At an R1 it seems like there are many more students who want to do research than there are spots in labs for them, making it potentially more difficult for students to find a lab to work in. I know you can't take each university as a separate case, but many students at R1s may not get the chance to be in a lab, even if they would like to.

Odyssey said...

I agree that it's probably a misconception, but it's one the NSF tends to buy into. And it does appear (anecdotally) that more of our applicants from R1's have research experience than those from SLAC's. Of course we do bias against someone who's had significant research experience whether they come from an R1 or a SLAC.

Any potential applicants from R1's that read this should take home the message that if they've had trouble finding a research spot at their home institution then they should say that very clearly in their applications to REU sites.

Whitney said...

Odyssey, I'd also like to thank you for your post. I wish I had first-hand advice like this when I was applying to summer undergraduate research experiences four years ago.

I'd like to make a point, though, because it's something I've been thinking about a lot lately.

I went to a very small liberal arts college that had little to offer in the way of bench-like research, which is why they encouraged all of us science majors to apply to summer research programs elsewhere. Unfortunately, I was not accepted at any of the places I applied. (I had the 4.0 and the complete lack of research experience that you say is so rare). I know now that there were very simple things I could have done to improve my application, but I'd like to make one point:
Reviewers have to understand that students from small liberal arts colleges will often ask their English (or other non-science) professors to write recommendations for them, because by their junior year, they may have only had 3 or 4 science professors, all of which teach multiple classes AND are writing recommendations for every science major in the junior class. (Hence the lack of research opportunities at these schools.) And one advantage of going to a liberal arts school is the opportunity to develop relationships with scholars from all disciplines. However, you say that these non-science recommendations are "useless," but isn't an undergraduate education about learning how to think, reason, and criticize, no matter what field you're in? I wouldn't simply brush off recommendations from non-science sources if these sources can provide significant insight into the applicant's ability to reason and WORK HARD. And isn't half of working in a lab knowing how to follow a train of thought thoroughly and get along well with others?

I'm now in my second year of a PhD program at an R1 university. I'd like to think this is because the people who reviewed my grad school application gave more credit to my English professors than SURE reviewers did.

Odyssey said...

However, you say that these non-science recommendations are "useless," but isn't an undergraduate education about learning how to think, reason, and criticize, no matter what field you're in?Perhaps "useless" is a little harsh. Certainly a non-science prof can attest to your character and work ethic, and we don't ignore such letters. And I can assure you that a 4.0 student from a SLAC who applies to our REU program is looked at very favorably, even if both reference letters come from non-science profs - we are looking for "well-rounded" students. However, non-science profs can't give us some crucial pieces of data. The first is your aptitude for science. Granted a science prof who has only had you for a couple of classes won't have a full appreciation of your aptitude for science, but their judgement will be far better than that of a non-science prof in this regard.

Secondly, not all science courses are equal. For example, an A in organic chemistry from one school is not necessarily equivalent to one from another school. If a science prof tells us that a student was in the top 5% of all students who have ever taken their organic chemistry class that means more than seeing the student has an A on their transcript.

I'm very glad to hear you were accepted into a good grad program and I hope you're having a blast. Keep in mind that grad schools get one piece of data not available at the REU level - your GRE scores. Decent GRE's can help mitigate the lack of information on your science aptitude in your reference letters. Also science grad programs often (but not always) interview prospective students, giving them the chance to get to know an interesting applicant they're not 100% sure about. At the REU level we have neither the budget nor the timeframe to be able to do that (although I have called applicants on more than one occasion when I've had questions).

Anonymous said...

From your perspective, could you give an educated guess of what my chances are of getting into an REU program?
I am a current senior, with one year left in my undergraduate studies.
General Biology and Studio Art double major, University Honors Program and what I have deduced as an "R1" state school.
I have had my first semester of research this past Fall, but have not had any major publications or presentations.
I am pursuing a Masters in Medical Illustration (my top REU choice is actually at 1 of the 4 school's having an accredited Medical Illustration school in North America - Johns Hopkins) and very interested in Biological research as well. Specifically, the morphology of amphipods.
My recommendations are from my research professor, and a teacher who I have had higher level Biology courses with as well as studied abroad.
My mother is from Central America, and I am a first generation college student.
I am a citizen.
My GPA is not very competative (My father passed at the beginning of my senior year, and it has taken a while to get my momentum back. My cumulative value is probably close to 2.8/2.9.
I know without a statement it would be difficult to gage my application, but, given these demographics, and that my recommendations will be good, and also come from leaders in Antarctic research (both of invertebrates and algae), what do you think?

koncs said...

Wow, I would say your chances are GOOD. I hope you applied.

Anonymous said...

What would you say the chances are generally for a rising sophomore? 4.0, I have taken courses in biology, 2 courses in chem, one In physics (placed out of the 1st semester of a 2 semester 2 course sequence), one in psych, and one in math (placed out of intro statistics, calc I and calc II), no prior research experience, one letter of rec. from my advisor (who is a physics professor) (the REU site asked for 1 letter of rec., preferably 2, but I only sent 1). I recently declared a major in Neuroscience and I plan to minor in math and physics. The program is in Neuroscience but with an integrated computational/math component. The main thing that makes me really unsure is the fact that im only a freshman (currently), and I only submitted one letter of recommendation. Also, it is rolling admissions and but I probably won't be finished with the application until 2 or so days before the deadline...

What do you think my chances are? Obviously you can't concretely say but just for some reassurance or for a dose of reality I'd really like to know how likely you think it would be that I get accepted!


Bert said...

I think that all of you offer valid criticisms of this article, but it is an important point to note that Odyssey did mention the criteria are subjective. I believe I am a first hand example of that. On top of that fact that every site has different criteria and are searching for students suited to the environment of that organization, from what I've seen REUs operate under a different set of expectations than other internships. I, for example, am a current undergrad with a GPA of 3.5, Ive also been doing research since my freshman year. After submitting a few of my applications, to pretty competitive universities I received offers. So it all depends on the site and the scientific intrigue and capability you have to offer.

olig said...

Excellent! This post is simply a great milestone for the Winning.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for all these great advices! Many of them were so revealing and so so so helpful. I cannot thank you enough! I've seen advices before, but most are generic, and none are from someone who actually reviewed applications.
I do want to highlight something though, just something I want to point out. The fact that an institution is categorized as R1 does not mean that the student has plenty of research opportunities. I am attending UNLV, institution that just this year achieved R1 status, but this was due to research in areas different than mine. I am a mathematics student, and while I see physics, biology, chemistry and economics students getting research opportunities left and right, I've looked among math faculty many times for research opportunities with no luck. It really depends on the school. I am highlighting this just so you are aware of this pretty weird fact.
Still, thank you so much for your help! Ill visit your site many times during the next week to make sure my application is succesful.

anonymous said...

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