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A job in a physics lab versus an official REU?

  1. Jul 4, 2009 #1
    I currently "work" on one of my physics professor's lab projects, basically I do some coding and make pretty graphs for him. Its not really physics, but as a sophomore I don't know enough physics to really be useful and I question any REU that claims to provide any more meaningful a job position.
    My question is, when it comes to admissions offices, how prestigious are REU's really? How important are they? I have read that two REU's are becoming standard, but I may not have enough summer time real estate over the next few years to complete two REU's and my other plans.
    So, is an independent lab position considered equal to an experience with the REU program?
    By the way, I have been doing this since freshmen year, and I plan to continue till I graduate (I really like the professor and there's another undergrad who does the same thing with the same prof and he's extremely helpful).
    Will the length of duration affect how admissions see this position?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 4, 2009 #2
    I'm going to be in my sophomore year soon as well and I'm currently doing an internship right now. I won't be able to tell you about how grad schools look at this, but I can share some of my thoughts on it. I don't think you need worry about the name of whatever you're doing at all. As long as you feel comfortable discussing ideas with your prof, you try your best to perform tasks with you own creativity and have enough patience exploring new research techniques then I can assure you will naturally worry less about what grad schools think about your current job and more on how you can improve the quality of your work.
  4. Jul 5, 2009 #3


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    The "prestige" of an undergraduate research position doesn't matter nearly so much as what you get out of it. Such positions will allow you to gain practical research skills, make connections, earn good reference letters, and investigate both the process of research and a particular field. All of this you can get from an independently obtained lab position or a formal research experience program placement.

    To me it sounds like you've got a great position: you like the professor and the people you work with and it's long term. The long term can improve your grad school application indirectly in that it increases the probability that you'll get your name on a publication, and it allows you more time to develop relationships with professors who will eventually write letters of reference for you.

    I would look into one of the more formal placements if it is important to you to explore a different subfield, or if eventually you don't feel like you're getting anything out of your current position. But, I don't think an REU placement looks all that different. If you're just doing it because you think it would look better on a graduate application, I wouldn't bother.
  5. Jul 5, 2009 #4
    As a former member of a graduate admissions committee, I agree with Choppy. This is especially true at this point in your education. Establishing a good long term relationship is pretty important in that it will increase your likelihood of being on a publication (or more)... evidence of research experience which graduate admissions weight very strongly.

    Keep in mind however, that most admissions require 3 (and some 4) recommendations. Generally these letters should come from individuals familiar with your research work. So it will likely be useful if you can do at least one research experience outside your home institution... just to get the point of view from someone outside your home institution (who has probably seen lots of students from many different institutions). A good time to do this would be between your junior and senior year. Such programs typically only last about 2 months or so... and you have to work hard to make that time count.

    It's likely that your research supervisor at your home institution will support your absence at this point, knowing that you'll be acquiring new skills and research maturity that you'll bring home to use as you finish up whatever he/she has you working on during your senior year... as well as hopefully increasing your chance of being admitted into a good graduate school, which will help show that he/she is a good undergraduate mentor.
  6. Jul 5, 2009 #5
    Thanks for addressing this point, I was wondering about "mentor etiquette" when it comes to exploring other research opportunities. I was going to assume that REU's are understood as necessary experiences for successful grad school applications, not rejections of a professor's good will in exchange for a two month program...
  7. Jul 6, 2009 #6
    This is a response to the original poster. Of course, physics girl phd has very good advice. I am currently a graduate student in mathematics. I participated in a NSF REU as an undergraduate plus the Math in Moscow program. I also was going to do one more REU and had accepted, but did not go for other reasons not related to academics or the REU itself.

    My advice is to start applying to REUs (applications won't start till next spring but you can start looking now). Don't assume that they are givens. They are extremely competitive, and the first summer I applied I was denied to all of them (I started applying after my sophomore year, although at the last minute, which is not recommended). Also, they are hit and miss in terms of what you will be doing. I would say coding and making pretty graphs for a professor isn't that immersive. In my REU I worked on my own project, which was original research, and we are finally getting around to publishing a paper based upon the work. We did weekly presentations which built those skills, made a final poster detailing the work, wrote a complete paper. I learned a new area of mathematics, plus did some coding for experiments. The REUs are also usually self-contained meaning they don't expect you to know much, but don't think you won't study advanced material, because you basically have two months solid to study one subject area.

    We also received money to travel to the joint mathematics meetings. That is another thing, the money for the REUs are rather substantial, so don't worry about financial matters because the stipends generally range from $2,000 to $4,000 for a two month period (plus most usually provided the housing plus some money for food and travel). The professor I worked with was one of my recommendation letter writers. Be careful though, one REU I was accepted into basically wanted us coding 6 days of the week! So some of the REUs are ways for professor to get cheap labor. Stay away from these. Just go to the website and it isn't to difficult to decide which ones to apply for (there are many).

    It is great that you are working with a professor at your home school though. I say definitely continue this relationship, as you will probably graduate to more advanced work. Do the professor working thing during the long semesters, and then make plans to do something every summer. There is even an http://www.um-cern-reu.org/" [Broken]! It is good to experience academics outside of your university. Graduate schools make determinations on whether a student will survive and thrive at their university. Seeing that a student not only succeeds in schooling, makes a working relationship with a professor, and also was able to be successful at another institution (REUs) is a huge turn on for the admissions committee. Diversity in your education is the key. They want to be sure that you are able to handle their environment, so if you can demonstrate you have handled different environments (classroom, one on one work with a professor, REU), then you will have a very strong application because each of these environments will produce at least one recommendation letter as well.

    Here is the website to start looking at: http://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/reu_search.cfm" [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
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