For my undergraduate STEM majors, summer research experiences for undergraduates (REUs) are a must! They are an absolutely critical part of the undergraduate research experience.
When I began my undergraduate degree in Physics, I had no idea what career path I would take or what I wanted to do. I literally chose physics because it was broad enough to give me more time to figure out my life. It ended up being a great choice; however, my path to eventually figuring out what I would eventually love to study still took some time to develop.
Coming into college as a blank canvas that knew nothing at all about the landscape of science and having never even heard of scientific research (K-12 science labs do NO justice in portraying what real research is like or about, but that’s for another article…), without guidance I could have easily slipped through the cracks and been forever forgotten on the scientific island of misfit toys.
One advantage of studying physics at Grambling State University is that there typically aren’t a ton of others in the major so your one on one attention with faculty is increased. One random day early in the second semester of my college experience, I had a professor pull me out of class to offer me an opportunity to conduct research with him in the physics department. This encounter alone would change my experience in science as I know it.
Now the downside of attending smaller and non-Research-1 (R1) institution is that the research that is happening on campus is not typically robust and many of the modern fancy pieces of research equipment are not available to you. To combat this shortcoming, students from these types of institutions depend on Summer Research Experiences to fill the research training void.
Now don't get it twisted, even students that currently attend a R1 institution should strongly consider traveling to a new institution during the summer to conduct research with other professionals around the country. It’s an excellent networking opportunity and provides unparalleled preparation for adjusting to graduate school research and environments.
It’s never “TOO-SOON” to start applying to and participating in Summer REUs. My first REU experience came the first summer after my freshman year.
You may be thinking…”I need a break from school during my summers…” but I will say this…these summer REU experiences can range in time from 4-12 weeks and in EVERY case that I have been a part of (4 cases) there have been fun and relaxing social experiences tied into the experience (i.e. bowling, theme/water park trips, house parties, cookouts, etc.). So the REU experience has never felt like an overwhelming academic continuation. It feels much more like a summer camp with like-minded peers and graduate student mentors.
The structure of these REUs are typically:
1. Group Welcome and Information/Program Guideline Session
2. Meet Your Research Mentors
3. Conduct Lit Review
4. Contribute to a Part of the Broader Research Project – If its meaningful and of quality, then you may be a part of a manuscript.
5. Write a Report of Your Summer Progress
6. Present Your Summer Progress (Oral or Poster Presentation Format) at a Closing Session
For your time and effort throughout the summer, you typically receive:
1. Free housing on campus
2. Some free food
3. Stipend from $1000 to $6000 (average is about $3500/$4000)
If you do the math, the stipend value is pretty close to the amount you would make with a summer job; however, the like-minded peers, graduate students, and professors that you meet during the process are priceless and are wonderful sources of recommendation letters for your applications to graduate school.
As an example of the range of research experiences that you can partake in, I will share my summer opportunities.
As a physics major, my research options were very broad. My first year was in a Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering department, in Louisiana, studying water and air emulsions in lubrication engine oils. The next year I was in a Physics department, in Tennessee, studying optical physics and the impact of rare earth doping on up-conversion in glasses and glass ceramics. My third summer was spent in a Chemistry department, in Delaware, studying sequestration of CO2 and hydrothermal sea vents (experience also included very useful GRE prep). My fourth and final summer was in a Materials and Nanoengineering Department, in Texas, where along-side a local startup company, I investigated polymer nanocomposites for the development of conductive polymer fibers.
It was my final research experience where I realized that Materials Science & Engineering along with Polymer Science were my passions. This experience would serve as the backbone for my personal statement and because of it, I was able to discuss clearly and definitively that Polymer Science and Engineering was what I wanted to study for my doctoral degree.
That experience made all the difference for me and my career.
If you are interested in researching different summer research experience opportunities then I will strongly recommend that you begin your search at the following website.
Pathways to Science
This website has a pretty comprehensive repository of programs happening all around the country. I have used it throughout my entire academic career and as you grow your academic network other people will begin to send you other opportunities that they think may be a good fit for you. But for now, choose a place you want to visit then apply to a REU in that area, but hopefully that place aligns with an interest that you think you have.
If you are nervous about being away from home, then choose a city near home or a place where you have family or friends nearby.
Happy hunting and don’t hesitate to place any questions that you have in the comments below!
Dr. Gabriel Burks is dedicated to increasing higher education awareness and showing aspiring scholars the power of science.