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When can I start applying for REU?

  1. Jul 23, 2011 #1
    Currently, I have taken Calculus I, Physics I, Chemistry II, and I have taught myself half of Calculus II and Physics II so far. I will know the material before I take the courses next semester. So, after the fall I will have Calc/Phy II, and fully plan to teach myself Calc 3 and another subject before starting those courses in the spring. I also have a working knowledge of non-calc based statistics (from a course) for what it's worth.

    I want to apply to various research opportunities, but I simply don't feel they would find me useful at all. I am a third year student, with a 3.98 GPA at a big state university. I know that I am a little behind, and the reason I did not apply for a summer position this year is because a.) How could I possibly be of help? and b.) I figured it was more important to attend school during the summers to catch up on all the courses I need. I had to take intermediate algebra and all that to make up for my non-existent high school education from a poverty stricken district. I don't know if it really matters, but I am not a native american, female, or otherwise diverse.

    Do they consider levels of education when going through applications? In that respect, would I stand a chance of getting into any program? If this is not currently possible, what courses should I have completed before applying?

  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 23, 2011 #2


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    You've got a chance, but one of the biggest things REU advisers look for is previous research experience. Why don't you start at your own school? If you're at a state university, you've got plenty of opportunities for research there. Ask your professors before trying to go somewhere else.
  4. Jul 23, 2011 #3
    This is sort of off-topic, but why is that almost all REUs are based on combinatorics? Is it just because it's the easiest to publish/do research on? (like focusing on particular problems, etc.)

    Also, I'd recommend preparing for REUs not only through prior research experience, but also prior knowledge. For example, if you want to do an REU on analysis, then I'd recommend having already taken analysis, etc. It may also be really hard to have prior research experience since professors won't want you until you already have research experience and REUs won't want you until you already have research experience... See the dilemma? Somehow you're going to have to leap into the cycle, and that initial leap is going to be the hardest. Not to mention that doing pure math research is impossible to find for undergraduates.
  5. Jul 23, 2011 #4
    That's not really true, loads of professors take on students with no prior research experience. If they have more stuff that they think undergrads can do, they can also pick some with research experience for tougher tasks or problems, and others for grind work or easier problems.
  6. Jul 23, 2011 #5
    I was thinking that assisting a professor with some research would be more difficult to do without prior research experience. I thought that programs like the REU were in place to give students the opportunity to build a history in research.

    I don't know enough about physics/mathematics to understand what I would even be able to help out with. I have looked at what my professors are working on, as well as the work of other professors at the university, but it all seems too complex. How could I really help? What would they expect of me should I even be accepted to help?
  7. Jul 23, 2011 #6
    I can't give you an answer to this question, but the professors can. They're not idiots, they were undergrads themselves and they teach them each year, so they know what they can expect. You don't have to come up with a master plan of what you'd be able to do, you just have to show interest, and they'll take care of the rest. Not all steps they make require a PhD, in fact, a lot of them don't even require a physics major per se, but someone still has to do them to get to the final stage, right? So don't worry about what you think you can contribute, because they will mostly answer that question for you. And to give you a bit of perspective, I've only just finished my first year, and one of the professors seemed to have found use for a student with such rudimentary knowledge of physics. I haven't solved the world's ultimate conundrum during my research, obviously, but what I've found is that your first such experience will probably be coupling grind work someone has to do, with the professor slowly and gradually easing you into the more substantive aspects of physics.

    My point being: Concern yourself with what interests you rather than what you think you could help with.
  8. Jul 23, 2011 #7
    The work being done at my school in the topics that I am truly interested in, are sadly, not my professors. Is it rude to learn a bit about their research and politely send them an email or something similar to initiate some sort of conversation?
  9. Jul 23, 2011 #8
    No worries if they're not your professors. Here's what I did, for example. We had a "meet and greet" organized by the department, where students were supposed to be able to mingle with professors. I was a bit hesitant to go, not knowing how it'd look like, but since I previously found a couple of professors doing interesting research (ones that don't and probably won't ever teach me), I thought I'd take a look if they're there, and hopefully establish some contact. Arriving there, there were very few students, less than 15 in total, and there weren't that many professors, either. Luckily, two of the professors whose work interested me most were there, and - after some awkwardness at first, not knowing how to approach them - I just went over to them, introduced myself, told them that I'm very interested in what they do, and it just kind of went from there. It turns out the professor that I'm now working with already had some projects in mind, and perhaps me approaching him just spurred him to start pursuing the one he found I could contribute most to.

    I believe this is what usually happens, as I'm pretty sure professors are constantly juggling all kinds of fun research ideas in their head. And I guess sometimes they just need a little nudge to push them into the direction of exploring one of them. They aren't just waiting around for others, especially not undergrads, to give them a direction and contribute pieces that only later make for a complete puzzle. Rather, from what I've seen they have a picture or a rough outline already built, and this make sense to me, since no vision translates to no grants. But with so many ideas they can't pursue them all, and most importantly, they can't pursue them alone. And here's where you, among others, can step in. Just show that you're interested, and if they do have work laying around they think an undergrad can do, you stand a chance. If not, at least you've tried, and who's to say that won't change in the future, anyway.

    So all in all, you should take my advice with a grain of salt, since I was extremely lucky in getting into research after my first year, and this is probably not something that happens on a regular basis. But the point is, I didn't have grand ideas or a proven track record in physics research. Hell, when we first started talking about the project, all I had under my belt was Newtonian mechanics! One measly Physics course! But what I did have was an interest in getting involved, and of equal, if not more importance, the willingness to take the step of actually expressing that interest to someone who's in a position to act on it. You won't get into research only having the first part of that, so go ahead an write those e-mails you're thinking about. Like I said, you have nothing to lose. The worst thing that can happen is they won't give a damn about your e-mail, and will forget about it and you the instant they skip to the next one. But even then, you're in a position no worse than now.
  10. Jul 24, 2011 #9
    Well of course it depends on the field, and I'm talking about pure mathematics. What would a professor need that an undergraduate could do? Fetch him coffee? In pure math undergrad, you're barely even exposed to research since you'd need a solid foundation to even contribute to pure mathematics. However, the more 'applied' the math research becomes, the easier it is to get involved in it.
  11. Jul 24, 2011 #10


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    Hey QuarkCharmer.

    Have you ever taken an independent reading course? These courses are good prerequisites for introductory research.

    If its part of class coursework credit (which is the case in some "Advanced" Science or Math courses), you typically agree on a subject with a supervisor and you spend the semester doing directed independent study of some area. You are graded on something like a final report that may also include intermediate submissions of parts that is used to build a final assessable report.

    I guess it depends on what you are researching though. If you have the background to get the gist of the research pretty quickly, something like the above might be overkill, but in saying this, I think if you had done some independent reading project that was relevant to the REU you are applying for, then that would be a game changer.
  12. Jul 24, 2011 #11
    I can't say for sure, because I didn't ask him, but I think one of my colleagues from the first year calculus sequence got involved in research with the professor that was teaching us. The professor was namely encouraging us to apply for student research grants, and I overheard the student talk about wanting to do research with him a couple of times. I don't know if anything came out of that, and I'll probably only find out if I ask him next time I see him, but the impression I got is that some professors actually do like teaching and giving students opportunities to further their knowledge and experience. Go figure.
  13. Jul 24, 2011 #12


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    Quark, you're very intelligent, and I suppose you're a very good student to. However, I fear that there won't be much research to do for you if you only know Calc II and physics II. Certainly not REU's.

    Go talk to some professors to see if you can do something. Very likely, they will give you some books that you should read and study in your free time, and after that you can do some meaningful research.
    Don't be afraid to approach your professors, even if you never had a class from them. If they don't want help, they will just say it. But I'm sure some could use people like you.
    Don't expect much from your first research experience though, you will spend most of the time learning and catching up. But you'll learn very valuable lessons!!
  14. Jul 24, 2011 #13
    I guess I answered my own initial question, but there's a reason why almost all REUs focus on combinatorics. It's pretty much 'applied' math in a sense, and it's easy to publish or produce results by focusing on particular problems. Most undergrads don't get beyond a 2nd semester or so of topology, algebra, analysis, etc., and research in those fields really require a deep understanding. Not to mention that all standard problems in 'pure' math have usually been researched on and so forth.
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