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What are REU committees looking for in applicants?

  • Thread starter MissSilvy
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  • #1
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Main Question or Discussion Point

I am in the process of finishing up applications to six or seven REUs and undergraduate research programs for the summer and am getting to the essays. The essays are nearly identical, the prompts being things like why are you interested in research in your field, what do you like about it, what you want to do for a future career and if you've had any previous research experience.

I've drafted several outlines and rough drafts but they all come off as too nebulous. Like a lot of the posts on PF, they're full of bromides like 'contributing to the tradition of exploring nature' and vague statements like that. I certainly wouldn't admit me with these sorts of essays if I was on a committee. But my question is what ARE they looking for? Obviously they want people to do their programs, go on to a great grad school, do great research and then donate or raise the esteem of their program. But I haven't had any research experience before and, though my grades are good, I don't want to just write about my homework and classes.

Where is the line between grand, sweeping statements like 'contributing to the body of knowledge' and more precise, concrete things? Does anyone have any advice for these sorts of essays?
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
eri
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Your chances of getting in an REU would be helped a lot by doing research at your own institution first. Taking on an REU student is not helpful to a professor - it's going to take up a lot of their time, and even if you do end up accomplishing something useful, it's probably something they could have done themselves in much less time. What they want to see is evidence that you might be useful - math classes, good grades in physics, computer programming skills, Linux/Unix/LaTeX skills, and previous research experience along with letters that say things like 'this student was useful, caught on fast, and worked hard'. Go ahead and apply for REUs, but talk to your own professors as well about working with them over the summer. One of the things I kept in mind when looking for students last summer was whether or not they could get a good experience at their own school, or whether they had already.
 
  • #3
chiro
Science Advisor
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I am in the process of finishing up applications to six or seven REUs and undergraduate research programs for the summer and am getting to the essays. The essays are nearly identical, the prompts being things like why are you interested in research in your field, what do you like about it, what you want to do for a future career and if you've had any previous research experience.

I've drafted several outlines and rough drafts but they all come off as too nebulous. Like a lot of the posts on PF, they're full of bromides like 'contributing to the tradition of exploring nature' and vague statements like that. I certainly wouldn't admit me with these sorts of essays if I was on a committee. But my question is what ARE they looking for? Obviously they want people to do their programs, go on to a great grad school, do great research and then donate or raise the esteem of their program. But I haven't had any research experience before and, though my grades are good, I don't want to just write about my homework and classes.

Where is the line between grand, sweeping statements like 'contributing to the body of knowledge' and more precise, concrete things? Does anyone have any advice for these sorts of essays?
If I were you I would keep it simple, and also keep it specific.

If they ask you why you want to research you could say "well I heard about this problem and I think there might be a connection between so and so" or "I know from my coursework that this area has so and so assumptions and I'm interested in a generalization" or even "I'm specifically interested in area X and am keen to develop specific knowledge in Z".

Some people might say that this is too much to expect from an undergraduate but I stand by what I say. You don't have to be doing string theory or anything, just keep it simple and be specific. If the professor hears that you know something about a field and more importantly know something specific with regards to the field or maybe your objective for the REU, then I would bet that the professor will pay more attention to you over someone who uses broad and vague statements and euphemisms on their application.

Just my two cents, take it or leave it.
 
  • #4
ZapperZ
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Humm... there's a "committee" in selecting REUs?

I don't know if there is. All I know is that I see a list of candidates, their applications/statements, and their letter of recommendations. Depending on what they have an interest in, I then short list the candidates into, say, a dozen that I consider to have a possibility of working in our project.

Who do I pick? I specifically do not pay attention to the very "bromides" that have been listed. Anyone who has read my posts in this forum at attest that I dislike superficiality. I prefer specifics. If you're interested in doing, say, research in material science, I want you to tell me why. Why doing research, and why material science in particular? Think also of what you can say or describe that makes you stand out from other candidates. This is because, those of us who are making the selection are reading a lot of applications, and after some time, they all begin to look and sound familiar.

A lot of people also seem to think that they needed to have some something spectacular to stand out and to increase their chances. It certainly doesn't hurt. However, in my case, I'm more interested in finding out your interest, your work ethic, and how you think! Can you show me that, if I give you a project, that you have the ability to know where to look up if you need to find some background information? I remember being thoroughly impressed by a student who, since he worked part time at the school library, gained the skill to not only search for papers, but also citation indexes, etc.

The one thing that I don't expect you to know is that I don't expect you to know the subject matter very well. I don't expect you to know high energy physics well enough to tell me why you want to do research work in that field. I've seen applications where the student put his/her foot in his/her mouth by describing not only wrong physics, but also describing work done in the wrong field! Don't pretend to know more than you do, and don't bite more than you can chew, because such things tend to bite back.

Zz.
 
  • #5
658
2
Humm... there's a "committee" in selecting REUs?

I don't know if there is. All I know is that I see a list of candidates, their applications/statements, and their letter of recommendations. Depending on what they have an interest in, I then short list the candidates into, say, a dozen that I consider to have a possibility of working in our project.

Who do I pick? I specifically do not pay attention to the very "bromides" that have been listed. Anyone who has read my posts in this forum at attest that I dislike superficiality. I prefer specifics. If you're interested in doing, say, research in material science, I want you to tell me why. Why doing research, and why material science in particular? Think also of what you can say or describe that makes you stand out from other candidates. This is because, those of us who are making the selection are reading a lot of applications, and after some time, they all begin to look and sound familiar.

A lot of people also seem to think that they needed to have some something spectacular to stand out and to increase their chances. It certainly doesn't hurt. However, in my case, I'm more interested in finding out your interest, your work ethic, and how you think! Can you show me that, if I give you a project, that you have the ability to know where to look up if you need to find some background information? I remember being thoroughly impressed by a student who, since he worked part time at the school library, gained the skill to not only search for papers, but also citation indexes, etc.

The one thing that I don't expect you to know is that I don't expect you to know the subject matter very well. I don't expect you to know high energy physics well enough to tell me why you want to do research work in that field. I've seen applications where the student put his/her foot in his/her mouth by describing not only wrong physics, but also describing work done in the wrong field! Don't pretend to know more than you do, and don't bite more than you can chew, because such things tend to bite back.

Zz.
This brings up an interesting point. I'm confused on how someone can know "why" before they've even had any research in a particular field.

My interests (as best as I know) are in materials science and optics but if someone wanted to know why I'm interested in those I would struggle to explain. As corny as it sounds the main reasons I'm interested in those fields are because all of the experiments are done right in front of me and there are jobs in those fields. I know I wouldn't like astrophysics because I'll never visit Saturn. I wouldn't want to go into an esoteric theory because I want an industry job when I graduate. These reasons won't convince someone very well.

Also, many of the research groups know, as you pointed out, that the student probably hasn't even taken a class in a particular field either. Solid State physics would be taken senior year at my school but I would be applying to research groups at the end of my sophomore year.

I'm not trying to bash you, Zz, but it seems like the chicken before the egg problem. Sure, I can learn about materials science and optics on my own but I know that's not gonna be the same as working in a group in those fields.

What do you recommend to gain more insight into a field that you're applying for? Thank you for help.
 
  • #6
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Humm... there's a "committee" in selecting REUs?

...snip...

Zz.
There was also no committee at my previous institution either. Individual researchers who were interested in taking on an REU student looked at your application and decided if they were interested in working with you. As ZapperZ stated, they then made a list of applicants. The REU program director then sent the offer letters.

Maybe knowing that it is the actual researchers making the decisions and not some committee will help you in your letter writing.
 
  • #7
ZapperZ
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This brings up an interesting point. I'm confused on how someone can know "why" before they've even had any research in a particular field.

My interests (as best as I know) are in materials science and optics but if someone wanted to know why I'm interested in those I would struggle to explain. As corny as it sounds the main reasons I'm interested in those fields are because all of the experiments are done right in front of me and there are jobs in those fields. I know I wouldn't like astrophysics because I'll never visit Saturn. I wouldn't want to go into an esoteric theory because I want an industry job when I graduate. These reasons won't convince someone very well.

Also, many of the research groups know, as you pointed out, that the student probably hasn't even taken a class in a particular field either. Solid State physics would be taken senior year at my school but I would be applying to research groups at the end of my sophomore year.

I'm not trying to bash you, Zz, but it seems like the chicken before the egg problem. Sure, I can learn about materials science and optics on my own but I know that's not gonna be the same as working in a group in those fields.

What do you recommend to gain more insight into a field that you're applying for? Thank you for help.
But you just told me why! If that was the reason, say it. I like that kind of honesty when I read an application. It certainly beats the usual "bromides".

I've seriously considered many candidates where the student didn't quite know what area they want to go into. One even said that all he wanted was to work on something, anything, just so he could interact with other working scientists and see what they do on a daily basis. That's different, and that certainly will stand out. Now of course, one can't just depend on that to be accepted or selected. But certain that should be part of the applicant's description. I would have no problem with reading something like that.

Zz.
 
  • #8
658
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But you just told me why! If that was the reason, say it. I like that kind of honesty when I read an application. It certainly beats the usual "bromides".

I've seriously considered many candidates where the student didn't quite know what area they want to go into. One even said that all he wanted was to work on something, anything, just so he could interact with other working scientists and see what they do on a daily basis. That's different, and that certainly will stand out. Now of course, one can't just depend on that to be accepted or selected. But certain that should be part of the applicant's description. I would have no problem with reading something like that.

Zz.
Haha, yeah you're right. The emphasis I gave on your quote is exactly how I feel. That is also my motivation to get into a group and to gain skills that can actually get me a job. Thanks again for your help.
 

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