What is an REU?
A paid summer research internship is the top-line gig in undergraduate research. Why? Because you’re learning how science works and getting paid to do it! A main purpose of the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program is to fund students to spend a summer as a part of a top-flight research lab. If you can make a case for yourself - strong recommendations, adequate academic record, and well-explained interest in your target lab - you will be a good candidate for an REU.
An REU typically runs for about 6-8 weeks, and usually pairs an undergraduate or a small group of undergraduates with a mentor (faculty member or postdoc) to work on a project. REUs are a full-time commitment: a stipend is provided, and most places will provide housing and/or meals. In addition to research, most REUs will organize social events and fun excursions (so you won’t be spending all summer just working). EBIO’s Internships page has a lengthy list of REUs each year.
How to Apply to REUs
For undergraduates potentially interested in going to graduate school for or just curious about research in general, REUs are a great way to gain research experience. REUs are extremely competitive, with hundreds of students applying for a very limited number of spots. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get into one your first try! These programs are very competitive, and this is by no means a comment that you’re somehow not “good enough”… there’s a lot of luck involved.
The application process is free, so don’t limit yourself to just a few programs. At the same time, applying is time-consuming and a lot of work, and it’s a bad idea to just blindly submit the same application to a bunch of different programs. I would recommend picking you favorites; identify one program that you would really, really be over the moon if you got into (top choice), and one program that you would be excited to go to and that would be a really solid step in your career (runner up). Go for no more than 10 in total, all of which you are genuinely interested in and really do want to attend.
Most REUs are open for applications November through February, and announcements of acceptance are given in March. It’s important to start early and not wait until the last minute. Winter break is a good time to work on applications, but it never hurts to start thinking about them earlier. And don’t hesitate to reach out to the project leaders listed online; they often oversee the selection process and want to help you put in a great application!
Factors to Consider When Applying
What kind of research do you want to do?
Read the project descriptions carefully to see if you’re interested in the type of research they involve. Looking at projects from previous years is helpful, and it’s also useful to look into what kind of research the project leader does, as the REU project they supervise is often related to their own research.
What do you want to get out of the REU?
Different REUs have different focuses, and it’s important to know what you want to get out of your experience. The level of the material and the extent to which you learn about it are both greater than what is covered during the ordinary school year. Some programs focus on an immersive learning experience, where you pick one topic and study it in depth, which otherwise students typically don’t experience until after their first year of grad school.
You can contact faculty members ahead of time to tell them that you’re interested in working with them, as they can often influence application decisions. Be sure to actually spend time looking into their work-- don’t just send some generic email and expect a response. You might not get any response (faculty are extremely busy), but don’t let that discourage you from sending more emails to other faculty members whose research you’re interested in.
Am I eligible for the REU?
Make sure you’re eligible before you apply! For example, many REUs cannot admit international students or students who are not permanent US residents. Some programs require a minimum GPA, legal background check or certain base knowledge, and some specifically target students who have taken a core of classes.
What is the REU’s time frame?
Most REUs are set up for Summer, when campus classes aren’t in full session. Make sure you have no conflicts with the start / end dates of the program. When does the program begin? How early should I arrive to get settled in? Some REUs are more flexible about this than others, and it doesn’t hurt to ask.
Where is the REU held?
As you’ll be living there for several weeks over the Summer, location can be an important factor. Are you interested in attending grad school there? What is the weather like, and would you like it? How close is it to your home and / or CU? How are you going to get there / get home-- is transportation covered by the program? Again, it won’t hurt to ask.
What would my financial duties be in the REU?
REUs have stipends that vary depending on the program. Some cover housing and / or food costs and some provide support for transportation to / from the program, but some don’t. What’s covered? If housing’s provided, is it on site? If you have to rent off-campus, be sure you find out early. And yes, it really can’t hurt to ask.
Writing an REU Application
An REU application usually consists of:
- Personal/research statement: usually around 1-2 pages long (single spaced) and should describe why you’re interested in the project and the background and qualifications you have. Some REUs ask for a more formal curriculum vitae (CV), and although not all do it’s generally useful to have, especially if you’re applying to grad school. Don't forget that if/when you're putting together an REU application, the folks at the EBIO Writing Lab are here to help you write it up! See their webpage for info about how to set up an appointment.
- 1-3 letters of recommendation (LORs): In my opinion this can be the most important part of your application. LORs should be requested early, at least a month in advance.
- Transcript: some programs ask for a list of classes you’ve taken (with grades listed). At CU, you can get a transcript from the Office of the Registrar. If you need a “formal transcript,” order it in advance as it sometimes takes a while to process a request.
This is the only part of your application that you can completely control, so while it doesn’t matter as much as your letters, it’s still important to have a compelling and informative essay. Some programs have an outline of what you should write, but most call for you to write a piece about your interest in and prep for the REU. My general impression is that they should include the following:
- Why do you like biology? Be specific about why you find it interesting and how you became interested in it. Citing specific examples (i.e., a niche species within a type of habitat) is better than something generic and broad like “animals are fascinating.”
- Why do you want to do research this summer? Don’t write a generic statement that doesn’t mention specific projects and why you are interested in those. It’s OK to reuse most of the same statement for different programs, but at least have a few sentences about the particular REU you’re applying to.
- Tell about your previous research experience (if any). What did you get out of the experience? What was the problem studied? What results did you get? How did you go about solving the problem? What worked and didn’t work, and why?
- Talk about why you are interested in the specific project or area of research that the REU is about. Try to be specific rather than generic.
- Mention any previous coursework and independent reading you’ve done that directly relates to the research project. This (and potentially letters) is the place on your application where you can explain poor grades if needed, but don’t spend too much space on it.
- If you’ve had previous experiences where you’ve worked with others on a research team, it’s good to mention this teamwork. Most REUs have students working together in groups with one another, so it’s important for the organizers that you be able to work the other participants.
- You can also mention how you see the REU serving your future goals. What are your plans after graduation? How will this REU contribute to them?
Letters of Recommendation (LORs)
LORs tell a little more about you than a transcript and personal statement can, and really strong LORs can make your application stand out from the others . Most REUs require 1-2 LORs, and some will require a letter from a previous REU advisor if you’ve done one before. It’s very important that you find someone who can write you a detailed and enthusiastic letter, and it’s useful to show them your application before they write, so they know how you’re presenting yourself. It is better to have a glowing LOR from a less senior person who knows you well than it is to have a lukewarm LOR from a famous person who doesn’t know you. It’s OK to ask for letters from postdocs, but I would avoid asking grad students for letters (they’re really, really busy).
I recommend asking for letters from the following people:
- Your supervisor in a job which has skills that translate to research but isn’t necessarily a research job. Teamwork, work ethics, time management and dedication are some skills that really count in your favor when applying for a research position.
- The default is someone you have directly done research with (i.e., faculty who oversaw an independent study project). But if you’ve not had that experience, don’t fret; REUs often are set up to give science majors their first-time immersion in a research program. If the REU is going to be that kind of experience for you, the next three options suffice.
- Faculty in a science class who you directly interacted with and who remembers you; say, a class where you asked a lot of questions or went to office hours. Don’t ask for letters from people whose classes you didn’t excel in! You want someone who can speak positively about your ability as a scientist and potential to do research.
- Other faculty members who you know and have interacted with, if they have something concrete to say.
Your letter writers may ask for your CV, transcript, and/or a draft of your personal statement, so prepare these in advance. It is also helpful if your letters mention what you are like as a person, since teamwork and collaboration are important parts of an REU. In your request, offer to meet with the letter writer to discuss your motivation for applying for the REU. Let them help you make the case for your great fit for the program!
Finally, be sure to thank your letter writers afterward and keep them updated. If your LORs haven’t been submitted and you’re close to an application deadline, send a friendly and polite reminder.
What to Do After You’ve Been Accepted
Many programs have agreed to the Common Reply Date agreement, which means that students accepted to these programs will not be required to accept or to decline an offer until a fixed date that’s the same for all REUs in the agreement (usually in early March). This means you have until this date to make a decision; it’s a bad idea to accept an offer and then back out later.
Don’t worry if you don’t know all the specifics at the time you’re applying, but your goals and priorities might change between the time you apply and the time you have to commit to an acceptance offer. If you’ve been accepted to the REU, and have questions about a program, it's fine to contact the program’s director. If you’re waiting to hear back from somewhere else before giving a response, let the director know! In some situations, it’s also appropriate to ask for updates on your application, for example if you have to respond to an offer from another program by a certain deadline. On that note, if you’re sure you don’t want to attend an REU, you should decline it as soon as possible so they can accept other students who might actually attend. Finally, don’t give up hope if you don’t hear back for a while-- sometimes offers are sent out in tiers, and yours will be sent out if the initial ones are.