REU vs. research at own school

capandbells
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REU vs. research at own school

Postby capandbells » Sat Dec 11, 2010 5:55 pm

I'm wondering whether it's going to be more beneficial for me to stay at my school this summer to do research this summer or to try to do an REU elsewhere. Let me give you a little background: I transfered to the school I'm at last year as a sophomore. At that point I hadn't taken any physics coursework or done any research. Last summer I did an internship at my school's accelerator lab. I was told I was going to be doing data analysis, but I ended up not doing anything; I was "in training" all summer, and the few times I actually got to see the professors in charge of the group I was working with, they said they didn't have anything for me to do at the time. I learned a lot and got paid for it, but I feel like I wasted a summer when I could have been doing something productive. I'm a junior now, so this will be the last summer I have to get any sort of research experience in. I know having so little experience will be detrimental, so I want to make the most of it.

Now, one of the professors whose class I was in last quarter expressed interest in working with me this summer. I think this is beneficial in that, if it goes well, I could continue that research into the following school year and possibly incorporate it into my senior thesis. However, I also feel like an REU at a good school would be a great opportunity for me to experience the "broader world" of physics research and to do things I probably wouldn't otherwise do (e.g., presenting a paper of my research). I'm torn between these two options and I'm very anxious because I know how important research experience is and how little I have.

edit: Also, do you guys think it would be a good idea to try to do some research during the remaining part of this school year?

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WhoaNonstop
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Re: REU vs. research at own school

Postby WhoaNonstop » Sat Dec 11, 2010 6:34 pm

Hey

If I could go back many years and tell myself something it would be... Get as much research as possible. You need to jump on any research you can get, even if it is early in your schooling. As far as the REU situation, I really enjoyed my REU. It was an absolute blast for me to get to meet others from around the United States, but if you're fairly intrigued by what your home school is doing, and can get a lot of research in that particular group before graduation, it may be better for applications.

I would go with the REU myself.

-Riley

laser
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Re: REU vs. research at own school

Postby laser » Sat Dec 11, 2010 6:39 pm

My suggestion: Apply to REUs elsewhere, and try to see if this guy will work with you during the school year. If you figure out in April/May that you would rather work with him this summer and not go anywhere else, at least you'll have options (though I would personally go elsewhere, just to have a new experience, and resume research with this prof in the fall). You don't have to do an REU even if you get in, but you don't want to set yourself up for taking a position for the summer out of default, risking a repeat of last summer.

One of the best parts about my REU at another school was being able to do work in a subfield that wasn't being done at my school.

axiomofchoice
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Re: REU vs. research at own school

Postby axiomofchoice » Sat Dec 11, 2010 7:11 pm

Potential benefits of a REU program:

- you might get paid better by REU, ~$4000 for 10 weeks. The range I seen was ~$3500-$6000. Your board is usually paid for in addition to your stipend.
- you get to live in a different place. I really like this part: one of mine is in Switzerland, and I could do all kinds of travel and hiking over the weekends.
- you get to meet different people (than those who go to your own school), especially your co-REU students.
- it's (at most place) a very structured program, so you have a good chance of getting some project finished over the summer.

If I were you, I would definitely go for a REU if given a chance. The only con I can think of is if you would like to develop a longer term research project with a professor at your school.

Astro-K
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Re: REU vs. research at own school

Postby Astro-K » Sat Dec 11, 2010 9:32 pm

I think your best bet, if you can arrange it, is to do an REU this summer and try to work with the guy at your school during the school year. Is it possible for you to do a senior thesis with him? This is what I did, and I ended up with two references who could write me equally strong letters of recommendation about my research background. Also, that gives you more chances of getting a paper published.

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YodaT
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Re: REU vs. research at own school

Postby YodaT » Sun Dec 12, 2010 6:59 am

Personally REU programs are a lot of fun... I cannot stress that enough. The one I went to was great... we had a very diverse bunch that was surprisingly very active. The REU projects were designed by the professors themselves and it really varied on the type of professor that advised us. Some were given a lot of attention and offered jobs next summer (my roommate was given a job that Fall semester!) and others were shoved in the dark. For me... well I was a part of a theory group that shoved me in the corner and gave me a tabletop desk (no keys to the drawers). I don't blame my adviser (he was a pretty important and busy theorist, after all)... the grad students got to me. Don't get me wrong, some REU students had great grad students that hung out with them, went to bars on weekends, and gave them some awesome advise. Luckily an undergraduate at the institute helped me along with my project, he also realized I wasn't the "typical" physics student... so, a lot of our time spent together was talking about ideas we've had that were non-physics related. He really inspired me, so I spent much of my time away from that cubicle and did my work in courtyards, libraries, my bedroom... I even sat at the park in the downtown area, haha. I pretty much learned how to learn there. I taught myself everything I needed to know (minus little hints given by my adviser). I was driven to show my adviser I was worth something... I guess he has that effect on people. I did an impressive enough job that my adviser told me to bring the project home. But, there is almost no professor willing to help me at my home institute. If I stayed at my home institute for the summer I would have never worked on the project I worked on, which was a great project btw.

My advise is to APPLY TO SEVERAL REU programs. Even if you feel you're a long shot. Show you have potential. If you get in produce results, have fun, and spend some time away from home. I've always had a fear of leaving home and right now I go to school about an hour's drive from my home(s)... I feel the program broke that barrier. Also, you can always bring the project home after the program... some students who worked in the lab spent the last 4 weeks just collecting data, patiently and tediously (they were not going to repeat experiments), because what some of them did was analyze data back at home. Also, you can try to do both over the summer. What I did this past summer was spend the month of May at my home institute working with my research adviser... then I spent a week at a relatives (corresponding with my adviser via email). Finally I spent 10 weeks at the REU program. I then went home, marveled at livestock (and how they awesomely resembled dinosaurs) for a week... then fall classes started.

Some things I think every undergraduate should understand is that the more fun you have with physics (with less stress and worry) the better you'll be. You'll release endorphins (corny I know) and you'll tell your mind its something enjoyable. Hell I find myself laughing at a problem, after building an image in my mind, referencing it to some hilarious internet clip or South Park episode. I've even been modeling multipole magnetic field lines in Mathematica all semester long (outside of my junior E&M class) on the basis of it "looking" cool. My projects in GR have even inspired some art projects... drawing fractal images has also gotten me obsessed with chaos theory (along with mentions of a chaos theorist in my all-time favorite movie/book: Jurassic Park, written by my all-time favorite fiction writer Michael Crichton ;-)

Oh, and do research as often as you can. What I've found out recently is that, in all honesty, presenting papers and going to conferences are just "perks" to research for me. I don't necessarily do it as a resume builder... I do it only because it excites me.

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zxcv
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Re: REU vs. research at own school

Postby zxcv » Wed Dec 29, 2010 4:33 am

You can't go wrong as long as you're doing research. That said, it's great to have multiple strong letters of recommendation, and the connections you make in an REU program could make a difference.

Just don't make the mistake of not taking REU applications seriously -- it is generally more difficult to get into an REU than to get into grad school, so you should apply to every program you would consider going to and don't worry if you don't get in. Don't be afraid to enlist the help of professors at your current school. Cold-emailing potential REU advisers can be very effective as well, since they often are able to admit you merely on their say-so and unlike other students in an REU program your salary does not come out of their own funds. In my case, each REU program I was went to (three summers) came from such a personal contact.

capandbells
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Re: REU vs. research at own school

Postby capandbells » Fri Dec 31, 2010 8:32 pm

zxcv wrote:Just don't make the mistake of not taking REU applications seriously -- it is generally more difficult to get into an REU than to get into grad school, so you should apply to every program you would consider going to and don't worry if you don't get in.

Wow, I was not expecting that. I'm applying to ~5 programs, but do you think I should apply to more than that? I was going to do more, but I decided to pare down my selections to spare my letter writers some time and effort. Should I apply to some 'safety' programs? Now you've gotten me all worried that I'm not going to get in anywhere this summer!

axiomofchoice
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Re: REU vs. research at own school

Postby axiomofchoice » Fri Dec 31, 2010 9:30 pm

capandbells wrote:Wow, I was not expecting that. I'm applying to ~5 programs, but do you think I should apply to more than that? I was going to do more, but I decided to pare down my selections to spare my letter writers some time and effort. Should I apply to some 'safety' programs? Now you've gotten me all worried that I'm not going to get in anywhere this summer!


Make that ~8 or more. Once your rec letter writer wrote one letter, it's not too difficult to send it to another program. I would, however, try to send them all the requests at once (or twice, in your case), since it would be annoying if they get one rec letter request every other day :wink:

REU admission is somewhat hit-and-miss. It doesn't cost you a dime to apply (unlike grad school), so just fill out a few more forms. One year I barely got into one, the other year all 8 that I applied (I was so unsure of my chance that I accepted the first offer I got, lest I get rejected from all the rest). It helps to have connections to the school for sure. I also got the impression that programming skill (especially with evidences that you did substantial programming beside just taking programming classes) is a big selling point for REU since so many requires more or less some programming, and it's much better if you know how to program beforehand than trying to teach you during the few weeks of REU.

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WhoaNonstop
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Re: REU vs. research at own school

Postby WhoaNonstop » Fri Dec 31, 2010 11:25 pm

I applied to REU programs for three summers. One year I applied to ~20 programs and was not accepted by any of them. The next year I was frustrated with the previous year's results so I didn't fill out as many applications. I only applied to 4 programs and was accepted to 3 of them. This is why I would suggest applying to as many of them as you can. You just never know what will happen.

-Riley

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quizivex
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Re: REU vs. research at own school

Postby quizivex » Sat Jan 01, 2011 6:01 am

By the way, while some of you speak of getting into no REU's one year and many the next year, the most likely reason for that is not randomness... there's a strong bias/preference for juniors over sophomores. This was explicitly stated on some of the program websites as well as some of the rejection letters I got when I applied sophomore year. One reason mentioned was that for juniors, it's their last chance to attend such a program. Another obvious reason is that the faculty know juniors are more prepared in terms of courses and research experience to contribute to their work. Also, due to the extreme competitiveness of the programs, sophs are at a huge disadvantage because they've had less opportunity to distinguish themselves, having only completed three semesters when they apply. Considering freshman year consists mostly of core crap and intro classes, these applicants may only have one or two serious physics/math classes done, so a 4.0 to that point won't impress anyone. Most sophs don't have much of anything else on their resume either.

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WhoaNonstop
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Re: REU vs. research at own school

Postby WhoaNonstop » Sat Jan 01, 2011 6:09 am

quizivex wrote:By the way, while some of you speak of getting into no REU's one year and many the next year, the most likely reason for that is not randomness... there's a strong bias/preference for juniors over sophomores. This was explicitly stated on some of the program websites as well as some of the rejection letters I got when I applied sophomore year. One reason mentioned was that for juniors, it's their last chance to attend such a program. Another obvious reason is that the faculty know juniors are more prepared in terms of courses and research experience to contribute to their work. Also, due to the extreme competitiveness of the programs, sophs are at a huge disadvantage because they've had less opportunity to distinguish themselves, having only completed three semesters when they apply. Considering freshman year consists mostly of core crap and intro classes, these applicants may only have one or two serious physics/math classes done, so a 4.0 to that point won't impress anyone. Most sophs don't have much of anything else on their resume either.


The year I applied for the 20 programs I would have been a junior. (I'm one of those special 2 year senior people) However, I do agree with your statement. It does have a lot to do with being a junior. If you're a sophomore, you should still apply but maybe for whatever you'd consider a "safety" in REU terms. Who knows what that might be?

-Riley

sunkist7
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Re: REU vs. research at own school

Postby sunkist7 » Sun Jan 09, 2011 1:09 am

Wanted to put in my two cents on this issue, as it is something that has been omnipresent during my time as an undergrad:

- First off, I wanted to echo the sentiment that REU applications are a huge crapshoot. They generally give a heavy advantage to underrepresented minorities, and they also favor students from universities that don't give undergrads a lot of exposure to research. Basically, white males from big research institutions are at a significant disadvantage. Apply to a bunch. I thought I had a stellar application: recommendations from profs I had done research with and published papers with, 4.0 GPA, tons of advanced coursework, and I only got into 1 out of 6 programs (and this was on the second round of waitlist acceptances).

- I also believe that students from different schools are viewed in a different light when they apply to grad school. If you are a from a tiny school with minimal research opportunities, it is perfectly acceptable to do a bunch of different REU's. However, if you are from a big research institution, I do think the top grad schools will want to see you work in one lab for an extended period of time (a few summers and then part time during school years). You don't need three different recs from three different PI's to get into a great grad school. I had a friend that got in everywhere he applied and is now at Harvard; he had one stellar letter from a PI he had worked for from the beginning of sophomore year until graduation, including two summers.

- To put a personal touch on it, I'll throw in my story. I did an REU the summer after my freshman year. Worked in a lab at my home institution during my sophomore year, summer after sophomore year, and junior year. Summer after junior year I did another REU away from my home institution, and now I am back in my lab at my home institution doing a senior thesis. I do feel that this hopping around has prevented me from seeing the whole arc of a research project: conception, development, execution, completion, publication. I have had life-changing experiences at my REU's: met amazing people, got to explore new cities, did awesome research. But 10 weeks is an incredibly small period of time, and it is hard to accomplish anything substantial. So ultimately, it is up to you. Are you willing to sacrifice the continuity of working on the same project at your home institution for a long time in order to participate in an REU? If so, go for it! You will have a blast. There is no bad decision here.

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WhoaNonstop
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Re: REU vs. research at own school

Postby WhoaNonstop » Sun Jan 09, 2011 4:26 pm

sunkist7 is right. If you go to a larger school with more research opportunities, it may be in your best interest to stay there. However, if you are from a smaller school, get the hell out of there and do an REU. They do tend to accept students from smaller universities because honestly, many of us have zero research experience and have to do an REU to get it. So, although I am biased, I think the way REU committees select students is the right way.

However, if you are at a big school and get the chance to do an REU, I would still suggest doing it. This is of course my own opinion. As sunkist mentioned, seeing a whole project is a great way to make your resume look shiny. However, there is a certain point where you have to pause for a second and enjoy life. REUs are a wonderful way to do so. I definitely enjoyed mine. Best summer of my life so far.

-Riley




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