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REU vs. work at your own university

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Greetings... I'm looking for opinions about whether I should apply for an REU next year.

My situation is the following: I'm a physics undergrad student at a school with a fairly good physics reputation (UTexas at Austin). I'm certain that I want to pursue an academic career, and therefore plan on going into grad school when I finish here. I currently work at a lab here and am very satisfied with my job (and if all goes well, will hopefully land a publication later this year).

Summarizing my questions:

When it comes to grad school applications, what advantages will an REU give you over simply working with a professor at your university? Will going into an REU at a similarly ranked university really be any different? What about an REU at a really prestigious one?

One advantage of staying here is that I can take a couple of (non-physics) courses over the summer and have more room for electives during the semester.

I appreciate your thoughts.

EDIT: I should add, I have very good grades (4.0) and could probably get two good letters of recommendation (related to research) already.
 
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  • #2
Choppy
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Let me get this straight. You have marks that are high enough to get you into grad school - likely with a scholarship. You're participating in research that you are satisfied with and that could land you with a publication before entering grad school.

I'm not sure exactly what an REU is (my impression is that it's some sort of formal undergraduate research opportunity program), but it sounds like you're on track for grad school. As long as you're happy with what you're doing, there's no reason to switch it up at this point.
 
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Yes, an REU (Research Experience for Undergrads) is a formal research project, where you usually visit another university and work full-time on a project that is of appropriate length and difficulty for an undergrad student's summer.

The main advantage I can see is that it's much more clearly defined than just working with a professor and that the admission process can be selective, so if you get into a prestigious REU you are already suggesting you are good enough for that kind of university.
 
  • #4
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the admission process can be selective, so if you get into a prestigious REU you are already suggesting you are good enough for that kind of university.
I don't buy that for a second. I have never heard a discussion like, "...this guy's a total stinker, but wait - he had an REU at Harvard! We need to accept him!" I think the only thing even remotely in this vein is that having letters from two different places is probably slightly more valuable than from only one in that it shows what a broader group thinks of you.

That said, the contents of the letters are far more important than the letterhead.
 
  • #5
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I don't buy that for a second. I have never heard a discussion like, "...this guy's a total stinker, but wait - he had an REU at Harvard! We need to accept him!" I think the only thing even remotely in this vein is that having letters from two different places is probably slightly more valuable than from only one in that it shows what a broader group thinks of you.

That said, the contents of the letters are far more important than the letterhead.
Yeah, I'm not saying you'll get into a top school just because you were accepted into a prestigious REU. However, assuming you perform well, a Harvard REU certainly looks good on your application.
 
  • #6
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Well, it sounds like your mind is already made up then.
 
  • #7
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I had a horrible time doing an REU at one of the world's best telescopes, but working for a professor at my university led to a larger quantity and a higher quality of results.

Generalizing my experience, an REU depends on everything going smoothly and you having an advisor and topic that you really care about. The other students should be at your level, otherwise it will be a drag. In my case the REU supervisor was less ambitious than the professor who knows my strengths well, and this is typical.

The bottom line is that results are what counts for getting into grad school, so go with whichever route you think will yield more publishable results.
 
  • #8
G01
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It sounds to me that you are doing fine for yourself without an REU. If you are on track for a publication, then I suggest working on that. That'll trump an REU if the REU won't produce any publications.

The reason people talk up REU's alot is because they are notoriously hard to get into. There is a lot of competition, usually with around 200+ people applying for 20 positions(this would be a big REU program most have less positions available). Thus, it looks good if you get an into an REU, even if it isn't at a top tier school. REU's are also good for people who come from schools which have little to no research opportunities for undergraduates.

I don't buy that for a second. I have never heard a discussion like, "...this guy's a total stinker, but wait - he had an REU at Harvard! We need to accept him!" I think the only thing even remotely in this vein is that having letters from two different places is probably slightly more valuable than from only one in that it shows what a broader group thinks of you.

That said, the contents of the letters are far more important than the letterhead.
Well to be realistic, a "total stinker" probably wouldnt get into Harvard's REU, except by clerical error.
 
  • #9
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First of all, I think you guys are overestimating the correlation between competitiveness of a schools undergraduate program and their REU. Some of the best and most prestigious REUs (such as the Duluth math REU) are just normal state schools. I don't know why you keep talking about Harvard's REU. I don't even think they have any and I know they don't have one in physics or math.

I think one of the major benefits of an REU is the chance to see and live at a different school. Most college students don't get this opportunity and I think it is useful for a lot of reasons. You can really get a skewed view of the academic world if you see nothing but your own school for 4 years.
 
  • #10
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First of all, I think you guys are overestimating the correlation between competitiveness of a schools undergraduate program and their REU. Some of the best and most prestigious REUs (such as the Duluth math REU) are just normal state schools. I don't know why you keep talking about Harvard's REU. I don't even think they have any and I know they don't have one in physics or math.
Yes, this ws the point I was trying to make as well. Every REU is hard to get into and is a great opportunity, especially for people from smaller schools.

I think one of the major benefits of an REU is the chance to see and live at a different school. Most college students don't get this opportunity and I think it is useful for a lot of reasons. You can really get a skewed view of the academic world if you see nothing but your own school for 4 years.
Good point, ehrenfest.
 
  • #11
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Thanks for the comments so far, they have been helpful.

One more question:

Say one university I'm really interested in for grad school offers an REU. Do you think going there for a summer and performing well would significantly increase my chances of being accepted into that particular program? (Through meeting professors and such)
 
  • #12
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Say one university I'm really interested in for grad school offers an REU. Do you think going there for a summer and performing well would significantly increase my chances of being accepted into that particular program? (Through meeting professors and such)
Yes, it definitely would. If you tell the professor you work and the people who run the REU that you will be applying, they will probably make efforts to ingratiate you with the director of graduate admissions and put in good words for you and one of them might even be involved in the admissions process. Just writing the REU on your application would make you stand out.
 
  • #13
I'm also at UT Austin...is this REU the one at McDonald Observatory?
 
  • #14
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Thanks for the comments so far, they have been helpful.

One more question:

Say one university I'm really interested in for grad school offers an REU. Do you think going there for a summer and performing well would significantly increase my chances of being accepted into that particular program? (Through meeting professors and such)
That would definitely be of help, considering you could probably get a reccomendation from a professor at the school you want to go to. That would definitely look good.
 

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