Are REU programs as amazing as their reputations?


I know a lot of scientists who got their start from an REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) program. One summer as an REU has the potential to be transformational.

Advancing science in the US (and elsewhere) requires us to fund undergraduate research, and ensure that undergraduate researchers have thoughtful and attentive mentorship. We already spend a lot of money on training students – and I’d like to make sure that these efforts have the biggest bang for the buck. We are focused on broadening representation, but we haven’t seen the changes we need. Can we make REU programs* more effective?

But wait?! – you might be thinking – how can we take something as awesome as REU programs and make them more effective? After all, NSF does a great job of selecting REU sites, and an okay job of keeping them accountable. And if you look at the outcomes of REU programs, so many students go on to do great things! How can we fix the REU program?

I think there are a couple major design flaws in REU programs, embedded into the basic framework, that limit their effectiveness. These are not easily fixed problems. But they are quite real and are putting a low ceiling on the ability of REU experiences to transform the careers of junior scientists. Some of these design flaws in the REU program are there not by accident, but rather are built on the foundation of well-intentioned but counterproductive assumptions about the kind of support that students need, and the kinds of students that merit support.

The fundamental idea of the REU program – at least as I see it – is that one summer conducting impactful research in a research-rich environment can help provide undergraduates with the motivation, skills, and support that will help them further a career in STEM. A typical quality outcome is when a student enrolls in a graduate program that will result in a career of STEM research of some sort. I’m mostly on board with this fundamental idea.

A common feature of REU programs is that they are designed to serve the underserved – to give students an opportunity to work in an amazing research environment that wouldn’t be available to them during the academic year. I’m also on board with this idea. I’ll be the first to recognize that students who are enrolled in teaching-focused universities can benefit from working in a research institution for a summer. That’s why I’ve made a point to make sure my students have a chance to work in places where they can interact closely with doctoral students, postdocs, and PIs while doing cool original research.

Where’s my problem? It’s here: if you bring in a student from another institution – especially URM and/or first-gen students — one summer in an REU program simply isn’t enough. More specifically, my problem is that a lot of folks think it’s more wonderful than it is. Yes, it’s a good thing, but it’s not a mechanism for social change. Some folks are operating under the delusion that a 10-week experience for students subjected to structural disadvantages is going to give them a new platform upon which they can launch a STEM career. I understand that the REU is just a piece in a puzzle of support that students need. But that puzzle piece needs to fit into the rest of the puzzle, or it’s not much help.

But, but – if you look at the outcomes of these REU programs, these students who are first-gen and URM do quite well, and end up in great grad schools some of the time! That means success, right? Well, yes and no. Take a look at how students are selected for these programs. How many of them had a CV and pedigree that put them on a clear trajectory for success, regardless of the REU experience? I’m familiar with too many REU programs that focus on choosing students who have high grades and scores, and come with a CV that already looks competitive for admission into a PhD program.

When REU programs are assessing impacts, I’m not aware of any that have a control group – applicants who were just as competitive but ended up not getting accepted into an REU program. (I’m not sure how this would clear IRB, anyway.) Would there really be a difference? Because if the students getting picked for a bunch of REU programs are already rated as top notch anyway, then they’ll manage to do just fine without the REU support.

While some folks run REU programs to pick the winners, I realize there are a lot of REU programs that are focused on providing opportunities to students who would benefit the most from having the experience and support of the program, including community college students. I don’t intend to drag everybody that runs an REU program for an elitist selection process. Based on the way that successes are measured, I can sympathize with PIs of REU programs that want to pick students who have prior research successes before bringing them into their program. And I also see why REU mentors may want to pick students who have prior experience and might offer a smoother mentorship experience. But I also see the role that the REU program is supposed to serve in the research infrastructure for our academic community as a whole, too.

Here’s the major design flaw that concerns me among all of the REU and federally-funded REU-type programs that I’m aware of: these programs have absolutely nothing to do with the home institution of the student. They don’t provide for ongoing mentorship or research involvement once the summer ends**.

Let me put this concern into some context. Last year, I interacted with REU participants from a lot of different programs, when I was visiting the posters at the SACNAS conference last year. I ended up chatting with many students in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at their posters, and didn’t get to as many as I wanted to during the brief poster session. One thing that I noticed about most of these students is that they were working on their own. They had come from small not-prestigious universities, like my own, and ended up doing an REU at a well-known field station or university. Most of them had good experiences with their projects and their mentors for the summer. And then they went home. And then, after that, support was pretty thin. To get their posters ready for SACNAS, some had a little input from their REU mentors, but most were flying solo. Their REU mentors were in some distant city, and their own professors at their home institution weren’t clued in to their projects. It is really, really hard to be an undergraduate following through on one’s research ambitions when your mentor only signed on for one summer.

Here are two things about REU participants and their home institutions, that I don’t think get enough attention when we think about outcomes:

  1. The support that a student gets at their home institution is critical, regardless of what happens during a summer REU. No matter how amazing an REU experience is, on its own this is probably not enough to alter the professional trajectory of a talented student who isn’t receiving other substantial support.
  2. There are a bunch of faculty and graduate students who mentor REU students who come from lesser-known universities, who think little of the quality of research experiences and mentorship that are available to their mentees after the academic year ends. When I say “think little,” that could be mean that they don’t think much about it, or they don’t think very highly.

This year, several students from my department did REUs. None of the faculty in our departments had any involvement in their research experience to the slightest degree. And when it comes time to write up a poster, or prepare a manuscript, or apply to graduate programs, or develop a fellowship proposal, then our capacity to support them will be limited as a result. The REU was a great experience for (some of) our students, but then it didn’t do much to help them out once getting home.

Let me put it this way. Consider how research labs identify as a community, with PIs, postdocs, grad students, and undergrads? You’ve seen these happy photographs on lab web pages, and people have “their” students. But who are the REUs, where do they fit in to these happy pictures? They’re usually just temporary interlopers – who may have been well loved but then quickly disappeared. They are transient members of the academic community that they joined. Under these terms, then this introduction may have only served to show them how they don’t really fit in. This is particularly the case for students from underrepresented groups, who were fully aware of how they were different from the moment they were brought in. I know that folks truly wish the best for their REUs, and prioritize doing right by them, but in the end, they go back home and life goes back to normal for all parties.

If we’re going to be taking students into our labs with the idea that they are joining our research community, then could we actually go to the trouble to allow these summer REU students to join our research community for real, instead of just being done when the summer is over? Right now, REU programs are not structured to provide participants with a long-term sense of belonging to the research community, and the support that goes along with this membership. How the heck could we change that?

I don’t think it’s enough to just tell REU mentors that they need to be better mentors for a longer period of time. It would help, though, if REU mentors were provided with resources to be engaged with their mentees for the academic year following the project, including presenting and publishing the work, and to advance the careers of the mentees. But that’s not entirely realistic, either. Because, as I’ve said, what happens at the home university of the REU participant is really important for a positive outcome. REU programs can benefit from the engagement of mentors back at the home universities of participants.

I think there are a lot of mechanisms that we could consider, that would give REU participants the support they need after the summer is over.

One possibility is for REU students to apply to REU programs with a professor at their home university as a “sponsor,” who will commit to (and receive support for) advising the student after the project is over. In an ideal scenario, these sponsors will already have a collaborative relationship with the labs that the REU students are working in. That way, they can have open discussions about the science and once the student gets back from the summer, they maintain a clear connection to the community that they had just left.

Another possibility is that REU sites could be developed with a discrete set of partner institutions. Once the PIs from the partner institutions get to know on another and work together, then it will be a lot easier to develop a mentorship arrangement that will look after the professional development of the students in the long term. I regularly get asked to send minority applicants to REU programs – but they tend to be more interested in what experiences the students will be having over the summer, rather than what the student will be doing for the next 1-3 years. If someone proposed a partnership that would help the students out into September and beyond, I’d be thrilled. But that takes an alignment of research interests and/or additional financial support.

I’m open to ideas here. I don’t know how to fix this problem. The bottom line is that I see a lot of REUs having a nice summer, but then after 10 weeks in their host lab, they go back home and they don’t have the support to take their research to the next level. This isn’t because their own universities suck, it’s because the REU experience isn’t structured to provide for any role of the students’ home university before, during, or after the experience. How do you think we can address this? We need to think more about finding quality experiences for students beyond the 10-week window of the REU program, if we want the effects of the program to take root.



*I’m using the term “REU” here broadly, in reference to externally funded undergraduate programs that bring in undergraduates from other institutions in to do research in the summertime. In the technical sense, “REU” refers to a specific program funded by the National Science Foundation. There are other programs within NSF that fund similar experiences (such as NAPIRE, IRES, LSAMP), and also other agencies fund similar programs, such as the Department of Energy, Homeland Security, and so on. For the purposes all of these are REUs, in the sense that they are research experiences for undergraduates.

**except for IRES programs, which can have real partnerships between a PI and the host lab. (This is how I ran my IRES programs, at least, while I was the PI of four IRES awards to date).

10 thoughts on “Are REU programs as amazing as their reputations?

  1. I disagree with your premise that the mentorship ends when the summer ends. I think it all depends on the mentor and the type of relationship they are trying to cultivate with the REU students. Graduate students and post docs are eager to develop their mentoring skills and demonstrate ability to publish with students, so they are ideal REU advisors. I was an REU student and had a graduate student as my primary REU mentor. We designed a project where all the data could be collected within the 10 week period with the idea that we would work on the publication in the upcoming fall semester. The paper was published and we still remain collaborators to this day having published several other manuscripts together. So I think it depends on 1) having a mentor that’s eager to work with students and publish, and 2) designing a project that’s tractable within a 10 week period where all required data can be collected.

  2. It’s not a premise, but an observation. I’m thrilled for you that you’ve had mentorship beyond the summer. This is not part of the framework of the REU program from NSF, and not part of the experience of many participants.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful and thought-provoking post. Good points, all.
    The Division of Environmental Biology is piloting an REU program that engages two mentors, one from the REU host institution and one from the student’s home institution (typically an HBCU or Minority Serving Institution). Funds can be provided for the home institution mentor. Although limited to PIs with active Dimensions of Biodiversity awards, there have been few requests for this flavor of REU. For details:

  4. I have heard faculty complain about REUs as a distraction from their own research agendas. As much as they may WANT to continue mentoring after the summer – many don’t have the bandwidth to commit, long-term. I think the home-institution-mentor is a workable solution and I’m glad to hear NSF is piloting such a program. However – NSF may be better off allowing students to identify a home-institution-mentor DURING the REU, when they can be made aware of such an opportunity and receive guidance. Students many not WANT to continue the experience. Requiring such coordination up-front seems like another barrier to URM students who already experience too many barriers. It is also another layer of management for PIs who already have a lot on their plate.

  5. Why would a PI take on an REU if they don’t want to support the student’s career. If they do this, it is on their plate. If they take the student for the free labor, then they accepted NSF funds with bad intentions. Also, PIs at home institutions arguably have a fuller plate.

  6. Two observations from my particular field (astronomy):

    Someone attempted to study exactly this problem for her PhD thesis, specifically the question of whether REUs were an important factor in the persistence of successful women in astronomy. The answer was, meh, not really — they all had other factors going for them that were at least as if not more important than the REU experience. I was one of the women in the study, and while initially I was appalled (REUs are great, right?!) the more I thought about it the more I realized she was probably right. Link to PhD thesis:
    If you’re looking for a model of how TO do REUs with long-term support for students from underrepresented groups, astronomy has a fabulous model (currently not under the REU umbrella but maybe should be):

  7. This year, two of my advisees from my department did REUs. None of the faculty in my department had any involvement in their research experience so that when they asked for support to present their results at Fall AGU there was none. So then I’d agree with this, “The REU was a great experience for (some of) our students, but then it didn’t do much to help them out once getting home.”

  8. Doug, this is great news that the Dimensions programs has this REU supplement situation! I think folks running REU programs might not be thrilled about this kind of arrangement (as it takes more admin work and extending projects as broader collaborations) but I bet folks at MSIs and HBCUs would be excited for such an opportunity and it could really improve outcomes for students substantially. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, your input is always valued.

  9. The external factors that influence the capacity for REU grads to pursue future research (e.g. family economic status, resources available at their main undergraduate institutions) are largely beyond the control of REU mentors, and I am skeptical that feasible steps can be made to make them more controllable. They do have control over student traits that predict success: knowledge, ambition, and confidence. If those traits are nurtured, REU participants may not need so much external motivation. They may take initiative to seek out opportunities at their home institution and have the confidence to confront professors with ideas. Although the resources of a top-tier research institution make this easier, surely even a teaching-focused university have independent studies that can accommodate scientific research? Am I being naïve and idealistic? What am I overlooking?

    Defining characteristics that come to mind of the REU program in which I participated as motivating me to pursue future academic research were independence, challenge, inspiration.

    Independence – Mentors were available for support, but from beginning to end we had to be very independent, as graduate students have to be.

    Challenge – That summer was one of the best I have experienced, but also one of the most challenging. We worked like crazy, and the work made me confront inner biases that impeded by research integrity. Working through those challenges made me a better and more confident scientist.

    Inspiration – The REU is a learning experience after all. Philosophical discussions made me acknowledge the virtues of academic research. Being around senior scientists that expressed a personal interest in their work provided encouragement that research could be a fulfilling path.

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