1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

This may sound silly but why did I not get accepted to the REUs I applied for?

  1. Mar 22, 2012 #1
    Ok, I applied for 10 chemistry REUs this year. I have only heard back from a couple of them so far, but both were rejections. Now, obviously I still have a lot of opportunity to get a different one, but right I'm just sitting here wondering why I wasn't accepted.

    Going into senior year
    4.0 GPA
    2 years of undergraduate research + a previous REU
    1 publication
    I know I wrote a good personal statement
    Two great letters of recommendation from professors I have researched with
    Have taken or am taking all chemistry courses required for my major except for 1, because I have really taken on a large course load each semester.

    I know you can't get accepted to everything but.... well why can't I get accepted to everything :smile: ? The part of me who has been slaving away ensuring I am qualified for these programs is up in arms that I could even get rejected. I feel like I am literally doing everything I could possibly be doing to beef up my resume. That part of me has trouble accepting ANY rejection, because the idea that my credentials are not good enough is just anathema to me after all my hard work. What could I have done differently? I honestly don't know.

    I'm really not trying to sound egotistical, I'm just really disappointed now that a couple rejections have started coming in and I have nothing to do but sit around and analyze what I am doing wrong.

    My greatest fear is that this will happen when I apply for grad school. How do I know that everything I have worked so hard for won't somehow result in rejections from top universities, and I will be left in the dust, bitter and wondering why? If these REUs don't want me for reasons I can't comprehend, then maybe grad schools won't want me either.

    I realize that I'm posting this mostly because I'm disappointed and want some reassurance :D
    Last edited: Mar 22, 2012
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 22, 2012 #2


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    You already have plenty of research experience. Maybe those schools simply give priority to students that haven't had access to good research opportunities, e.g. students at small colleges.
  4. Mar 22, 2012 #3
    If you've only heard back from 2 doesn't mean you haven't won any. Plus, if you've already had one before I don't see why you'd be disappointed if you didn't get one a second time. Like jtbell said they may be more interested in giving priorities to students that aren't as fortunate.

    Plus besides your grades do you have any thing else that sets you apart from everyone else? Grades can only go so far, you need ambition, determination, and the ability to accept failures at times.

    There are lots of generally smart people on paper, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are what people are looking for.
  5. Mar 23, 2012 #4
    You are going to have to get used to this. The reward for being outstanding in any academic field is to get promoted, and eventually, you are going to end up in a situation where you are not the smartest person in the room, and you may in fact be the dumbest. If you are in a situation in which no one is the dumbest, then it becomes random selection in which you are going to lose.

    If I pick ten Nobel prize physicists, and pick any sort of criterion for ranking them, then mathematically, one of the is going to be the lowest rank, and five of them are going to be below median.

    If I take the twenty or so string theories that got Ph.D.'s last year, and give them a math genius test, then one or more of them will get the lowest score.

    The reward for hard work is ending up in a place, where you are below average.

    I remember at the olympics a few years back, in which there was a figure skater that made a major mistake in the finals, and the commentator said how unfortunate it was that she did all of this hard work for nothing, and the person sitting next to me said sarcastically, "yeah around, spending years of hard work and all you get in a bronze medal in the olympics, what a waste."

    One other thing that I've noticed is that I've heard people argue is that because of history and child rearing practices, that people in college today find it almost impossible to deal with rejection. The idea is that in the 1990's, parents and teachers were super careful about not letting kids get hurt, that it's resulted in a generation of people that just cannot deal with getting rejected.

    Reason why. You have X places and 2-10X applicants. Someone is going to get rejected, and it's probably going to be you. You could work hard and do everything right, but you are competing against people that are also working hard and doing everything right.

    So, well maybe you will get rejected by the top schools. All of my first choices in graduate school slammed the door in my face. In my situation, since I was fanatically committed to learning astrophysics, I got over it, and did the best with what I had. And my life has been a series of rejections and failures, and I'll be a total loser until I die.

    You are probably going to get a lot of "tough love" :-) :-) :-)

    If you want to do science, you had better get used to rejection and disappointment, and it's after getting rejected that you figure out whether you really want to do this science thing. For me, it's cool enough, so that I've gotten used to getting doors slammed in my face.
  6. Mar 23, 2012 #5
    Welcome to science. The simple truth is there are more very qualified students than there are spots, and its a situation that will get worse as you move up the ladder.

    Eventually, you'll be a decently published graduate student hoping that one of the hundred postdocs you applied to all over the world will take you, so you can continue your career. If that works out, you'll be a well published postdoc whose spent his life preparing for that professorship hoping that one of the universities you've applied to will at least invite you for a job talk.

    The science job market is simply too tough for being good at your job to be enough. Being hard working and talented gets you a ticket to the lottery, but you'll have to be lucky to get a job. Better to learn that now than later.
  7. Mar 23, 2012 #6
    Also there is a Marxist interpretation for all of this....

    Basically, social systems tend toward hierarchies in which a small number of people end up controlling large numbers of people. One essential problem here is for how those small number of people to maintain power and control. One method for this is to have the small number of people to convince the larger group of people that they *deserve* to rule.

    The trouble with this is how do you convince people that you *deserve* to rule? Well, we passed all of the tests and got good grades? So what? So ultimately what you do is to pull aside people and tell them one by one that if they do the right things and behave, they do can be in the small circle of people with power, and that the people that don't pass the tests are stupid and lazy and should be ignored.

    That works until people figure out that there aren't enough places for everyone. At which point it still works if you let the "losers" get depressed and disappear into the darkness. The trouble with that is that in the age of facebook, no one disappears anymore.

    That gets us to the situation in 2012, what happens next, I'm not sure (Marx and Lenin suggested massive revolution, but that didn't work).
  8. Mar 23, 2012 #7
    All this is sad for me.....

    One my important teachers was the woman that *invented* undergraduate research (Margaret MacVicar). The idea behind undergraduate research was to get people out of the boring, bureaucratic, grade driven classes, and give people a taste of the pure wonder of science.

    It's sad (but not surprising) that undergraduate research has become yet another "check the box" "how do I get into graduate school?" thing. Bureaucracies have a way of making anything joyous and liberating (like Marxism) into crap. Right now, the frontier is online learning and self-study, but eventually that's also going to get bureaucratized and turn into crap, so I'm expecting that in a decade or so, someone is going to be scared to death that their physics youtube video isn't getting enough hits.
  9. Mar 23, 2012 #8
    What else can one do besides work hard and commit his/her life to the field (during undergraduate studies)? If everyone else is doing the exact same thing, what distinguishes the best from the best? What more can you do besides dedicating everything you have towards your goal?
  10. Mar 23, 2012 #9
    It's this. If you look at the NSF solicitation for REU grants it explicitly states that the programs are designed to help underrepresented groups and those who have poor access to research opportunities (e.g. coming from a non-research university). This also translates into a preference for students that are getting their first taste of research. REUs have to report their demographics to the NSF every year and this strongly affects whether their site continues to be funded.

    This doesn't mean you'll get rejections across the board, but your chances are much lower than they were the first time you applied.
  11. Mar 23, 2012 #10
    I'm not interested in these programs because I want to get into grad school, I want to get good research experience. It just so happens that what is required to get into grad school is good research experience. Sure you have to go through a bureaucracy to get there, but that doesn't mean the bureaucracy is the focus of my interest.

    I feel like my experience is a double edged sword. REUs want to see that you have experience and at the same time, if you have experience then they may not want you. It puts me in a tough spot.
  12. Mar 23, 2012 #11
    You may have been told that REU's like to see that you have experience, but for the most part they'd rather see that you not have experience :)
    On a brighter note, you're going to be fine!! Congrats on your hard work, your credentials sound amazing already! Consider doing an internship or working with another lab at your school this summer. There are other REU-type programs at national labs and military research centers, but we're past the deadlines by now.
  13. Mar 23, 2012 #12


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    You need a lot of luck.
    Science is no different than any other career, you need to have the right skills but also be at the right place at the right time.
    All you can do is to prepare, so that you are ready IF you find an opportunity.

    It is important to realize that there are a lot of successful scientists out there who were NOT the brightest in their class, or good PhD students, or even very successful post-docs.
    But along the way they acquired the "right" skills and at some point there was a job opening that was just right for them.
    Some of them turn out to be good "hands-on" scientists, whereas others find their "niche" in teaching, scientific admin (writing grants, serving on committees etc.).
  14. Mar 23, 2012 #13
    Nothing really. Mathematically you are screwed.

    The question you really have to ask yourself is whether you think the rewards are good enough so that you are willing to work like hell even if you come in last place and fail completely in the end.

    For me they are.

    Also, don't kid yourself into thinking that you'll have to just work hard in your undergraduate studies. If you get sucked into the field, you'll have to work like hell for the rest of your life. You work like hell, then you die.

    Best at what? What *is* your goal? What do you do if you put everything you have at your goal and you find that it's not good enough (and mathematically at some point you'll hit that point).
  15. Mar 23, 2012 #14
    So if you can't get into those programs, you have to think some more about how you can get a good research experience otherwise. Also experience is experience. Sometimes a *bad* experience is a good lesson.

    Also, why *do* you want to go to graduate school. It's not like it's likely that you'll end up with a career in academia or anythng like that. If your purpose in going to graduate school is to challenge yourself, then figuring out how to get the resources to do research is part of your education. Professors go through the same thing that you are going through when they apply for grant proposals.

    Sure does, and it's the same sort of thing that you'll be facing over and over again in your life. See the threads about Ph.D.'s having difficulty getting jobs because of being overqualified.
    Last edited: Mar 23, 2012
  16. Mar 23, 2012 #15
    And there are very good political reasons for this. The problem with research grants is that if you just give the grants to the "best" people, then ultimately all of the funding will end up in a small number of schools, and by and large those schools already have a ton of money. Ultimately, you have to convince a large number of senators and congressmen to vote for funding for a program, and that means setting up the rules so that everyone gets a piece of the pie.

    If there are research opportunities in your local school, then that gets paid for from some other budget, and if someone who isn't the NSF can pay for your research experience, then it's considered a good thing to give NSF funding to someone else that *wouldn't* be able to get the experience through some other means. Whether you agree with this logic or not, this is what Congress is thinking about when it funds these programs.

    One bit of good news, if you aren't getting a position because you are "overqualified", this isn't something that is a factor in graduate school admisions, but it does become a big factor once you finish graduate school.
  17. Mar 23, 2012 #16
    You have great credentials; I know someone with <3.0 GPA from a small college but he still managed to land his 2nd biochemistry REU this year.

    I also know someone who has had 4 years of research (since high school), 3 publications, 11 grad classes and 1 AIP award halfway through sophomore year, but won't be applying for an REU - probably wouldn't land one.

    I have the fortune of being at a city (I'm sitting a couple of blocks down from where twofish-quant took his classes, if I guess correctly) where this is not the exception but the norm, and the best measure of your accomplishments is simply how long you stayed up last night to do something. And so I realize if you're going to do anything with how it looks on your resume in mind, you're going to end up very unhappy. I'm not accusing you of this, of course, but it's worth pondering because you can get quite far in undergraduate research without actually knowing what you're doing it for.

    A question to pose for you about your 2 years of undergraduate research... Can you give me a 1 minute description of your research project(s) right now, ad lib? It may happen one day, if you end up applying for a job in the industry, that you're asked about your PhD thesis. Well, if you are hesitant, then you're going to have problems. If you began to defend your ego, "Sure I can!" then there's a more worrying problem. But if your eyes lit up and you just naturally started talking, as some part deep in you feels that 1 minute is not enough; you may just survive the weeding - and you can skip to the last paragraph of my post.

    It happens that many people are of the first two types, and they will eventually be unhappy the deeper they dig themselves into this hole. If you had your credentials and an analogous amount of coursework in something else, you'd probably have a better shot at BCG, Deloitte, Getco, Google, GS, KPMG, Smithsonian, or even a good startup, than at a REU. That is something you must live with and never let cross your mind. If you can do this, then you have overcome a greater beast than the disappointment for getting rejected - there's nothing for you to feel upset about - and you can skip to the last paragraph of my post.

    If you're looking for research experience, you can still talk to your professors who wrote your recommendations, say you're trying to do research; start something. I think the summer window still has openings... you may consider looking for research internships in the private industry.
  18. Mar 23, 2012 #17
    Yeah what really sucks is that my professor I do research with is moving away after this semester so I can't fall back on him to do research over the summer. I could maybe find something, but it would be difficult.

    I feel like my biggest hope is a biochemistry internship that I interviewed for (even though I still have like 6 REUs to hear back from). I'm really excited about getting involved in that type of research so hopefully that pans out. I already made it through one step of getting the interview, so maybe I will get that. It seems to be more a of a position where they appreciate research experience.
  19. Mar 23, 2012 #18
    twofish's truths really hurt...I think I'm going to develop a severe case of atychiphobia, lol. Can't tell if it's really realism or actually leaning towards pessimism...
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook