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How many REUs should I apply to? (sophomore Physics/Astro double major)

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  • Thread starter Henry Shi
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I'm a sophomore physics/astronomy double major + math minor at a large research university. (My university has an applied math department and a pure math department; I'm doing the pure math minor.) I have a GPA of 3.7 and (so far) A's in all my physics and astronomy courses, and A's in all my math courses except for differential equations (B+). I have prior high school research experience, but not in any kind of physics or astronomy.

I am primarily interested in astrophysics/astronomy research, but I am also open to theoretical physics, astronomy outreach, nuclear or particle physics, planetary science, astroinstrumentation, or aerospace engineering.

I have taken introductory physics (lecture + lab), introductory astronomy (the rigorous physics-heavy version required for astronomy majors), multivariable calculus, differential equations, introductory linear algebra, introductory math proofs/logic. I am currently enrolled in: Modern Physics (lecture + lab), Programming for Physics (teaches Linux, Fortran, C++), and Data Analysis with Python. I am also a non-credit research assistant (mainly python data analysis + plotting for cosmology) for an astronomy professor at my university, and we have plans for me to continue doing this in the spring semester, but for credit and with larger datasets.

However, I have a few blemishes on my academic record. I have three withdrawals: one from a freshman writing course (graduation requirement for everyone at my university) in fall 2019 that I re-took over the winter, one from an introductory geology course in spring 2019 that I dropped because I realized I was more interested in astrophysics, and one from an advanced proof-based linear algebra course that I tried taking this semester but dropped due to personal mental health issues. I also have a B+ in differential equations.

For now, I am focusing mainly on astronomy research REUs as well as other astronomy research programs. I am applying to both astronomy-specific programs as well as to general physics REUs that include both astrophysics and nuclear/particle physics. I am also applying to other non-REU astronomy research programs, some of which have astroinstrumentation, aerospace engineering, and/or planetary science in addition to astronomy. I am even applying to 1 astronomy outreach program and 1 theoretical physics program. In total, I have a list of approximately 40 programs I'm interested in, and I need help to narrow it down.

With this in mind, how many summer programs should I apply to? Would my academic record negatively impact my REU application process? Should I limit my quantity of applications because of my record?

Also, how long should REU application essays be? I'm personally thinking 600-800 words for the longer REU essays, and 200-300 for shorter essays, is this reasonable?
 

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  • #2
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In particular, the REUs for astronomy. I know that programs like Hawaii IfA, UT Austin, and Harvard-Smithsonian are very competitive whereas programs in the Midwest, Mountain, etc regions are probably less competitive.

How do I find out the acceptance rates, application statistics, etc. of REUs? How do I figure out which ones are more selective than others?

For reference, I'm a sophomore physics/astronomy double major with a 3.7 GPA, currently involved in research for the first time. I've taken intro physics (lecture+lab) and astronomy, and I'm enrolled in modern physics (lecture+lab) and programming courses for Fortran/Linux/C++ and Python. I've also taken multi calc, diff eq, and linear algebra.
 
  • #3
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10+. 10-20 is probably ideal (that's what I did in the past and it netted me 2 acceptances, lol). 20+ is a lot and I wouldn't wish that work upon your recommendation letter writers since there isn't a centralized system of recommendation submissions. I personally wouldn't go over 30. But make sure your recommendation writers will put in a strong word for you.

There's no effective way to figure out exactly how competitive each specific REU is, but browsing here and on Reddit should give you some insight. But of course, expect REUs at places like Harvard or UT to be very competitive. Most accept 10-20 kids out of 200-1000 applicants. Definitely submit applications to the DOE labs as well, as they have much bigger programs that accept 50+ kids per lab.

Your academic record looks fine, and definitely hype up all the research and lab work you have done.

In addition, make sure you search for research opportunities at your own school. That would be much less competitive than an REU, and since you attend a well ranked research university, you'll find good faculty doing good research. Another advantage of staying at your home institution is that you can continue research in the fall throughout the school year. REUs, IME, are not super productive because you only do it for 3 months; it almost functions more as a way for you to develop a strong relationship with a particular institution before you apply there for grad school. I did an REU one summer, and I truly wish I had just stayed at my own school.
 
  • #4
Dr. Courtney
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My experience is that most busy undergrads make diminishing efforts when working on more then 4-5 applications at a time. It is better, in my view, to make 4-5 wholehearted, excellent applications than to make 10-20 applications that are rushed with lots of copy and paste. You want to tailor each application to the opportunity and take due care with your responses and essay answers. You also want to let drafts of each application sit for a few days and then proof read them. If they are willing, you want trusted advisers proof reading your most important applications.
 
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