Competition for the “best” REU applicants is outrageous

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On a Friday in mid-March, a student in my department was notified that they were just accepted into an NSF-funded REU program. (For more about REUs, here’s an earlier post.) It’s program with a fair amount of prestige, but definitely not in the highest tier among the folks who keep track of status. Which is everybody, of course.

They were told they needed to accept or decline by Monday. After pleading for additional time beyond the weekend, they were given two more days. Wednesday.

At this point in the calendar, there should be no urgency. This program should not be in an immediate hurry to fill its REU slots. They have plenty of time for the logistics of travel, accommodation, lab placements, and whatnot. So, then, why are they rushing students to accept or turn down a position with short notice?

It seems obvious to me — they are trying to get the “best” REU applicants to commit to their program before they end up being accepted to other REU programs.

I think this is majorly problematic.

Let me point out three common occurrences in the REU selection process.

  1. A ton of qualified applicants don’t get into any REUs, even though they applied to many programs.
  2. A small number of applicants apply to several REUs, and get into nearly all of the ones that they’re applying to.
  3. People who run some REU programs say they have trouble meeting NSF expectations for including students from underrepresented groups.

When I think about those three facts above, it makes me kind of furious. Because this tells me that the people running REU programs are focused on providing opportunities to the students who are already headed to grad school anyway. Because they’re not working to fulfill a major purpose of the REU program, to help recruit students into graduate study in STEM who otherwise would not be able to have such an opportunity.

If REU programs are spending their resources fighting over a small number of ethnic minority undergraduates who appear on paper to be model applicants, this doesn’t help diversify STEM.

Do you have a a high quality REU program? Do you know that your mentorship and research opportunities can put your REU students on a path towards success in STEM? Then how about you stop fighting with other REU programs over the students with the most amazing applications, and instead invest your time and effort into students who might not have another opportunity? Know that you’re actually making a difference.

How to go about this? The folks running REU programs can start with four steps:

First, abandon the deficit model of recruiting URM students. Stop looking at institutional prestige, non-stellar grades, and less-than-perfectly-polished essays as demerits. (For starters, if you ask for a transcript, make sure all of your applicants also report what jobs they are working during the academic year, for how much money, and for how many hours. That might give you some serious context that you’re otherwise missing. Consider a student with a full course load and 3.2 GPA. If you learn they’re washing dishes for 30 hours per week, a 3.2 average looks a lot better, eh? Maybe this student could be a total rockstar?)

Second, you’ve got to reinvent how you do the assessment for your REU program. If you always take the “best” students, then these undergrads are headed for great PhD programs even they don’t have the benefit of doing an REU with you. Sure, you can claim to NSF that your REU program is top notch because it results in publications, and the students end up in good PhD programs. But that’s not because of what you are doing, it’s about how you are selecting. Instead, please work with your evaluators to develop metrics to show that your REU program is positively impacting the lives of the students in the program. If you choose students from a pool that is unlikely to end up in grad school — and you end up with 50% of students in grad school — that’s a huge success! I think you can trust NSF program officers to be able to interpret your assessment data in the proper context. They’re smart people and they realize that the REU program isn’t just there to train the well-resourced but also the people who need the opportunity who otherwise wouldn’t get it.

Third, if you have PIs who are hosting students in your REU program and they complain that they might get stuck with low quality students, drop them. The REU program isn’t here to provide a data monkey to help out grad students with summer fieldwork — it’s about providing research training and mentorship to undergraduates. Keep an open mind, perhaps students who have a less-than-amazing GPA and an unpolished personal statement are just as talented and worthy. Use your institutional privilege to share some of your social capital with those who need it.

Fourth, require that all of your mentors go through mentorship training. Which means that you’ll have to develop a quality mentorship training program, unless you already have one on campus. If someone can’t take several hours out to be trained in effective mentorship, then you can’t afford to invest a student in them.

This sounds simple — and it actually is simple, after you shift your priorities.

If you don’t take any chances, you won’t make any change. Reward requires some risk. Take that leap and bring on students who you think have lots of potential, and work with them to unlock that potential by giving them the opportunity.

By the way, I’ve also learned that some NSF-funded REUs are requiring students to pay deposits to secure their spaces in the programs? I think that’s unacceptable, but is it even legit?

6 thoughts on “Competition for the “best” REU applicants is outrageous

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful and honest post. I am faculty leader of an undergraduate research program (not NSF) aimed at “elite” students. These duties were thrust on to me, and initially I struggled with “selecting the best” mentality mandated by the funder. I pushed past that by shifting the emphasis to excellence in student-mentor relationships (which the funder also wants), focusing on the development of students in this program and in general, and an ability to point at “value-added” and not just “filtering for the best”. Lastly, it’s a false assumption to assume at trade-off between traditional metrics of productivity and broader impacts. There are ample opportunities for win-win and advancing the two together.

  2. Your post makes a good case for change in how these programs are run. I agree that the pressure to accept within a short time frame puts students, especially URM students, in difficult positions. Hopefully these programs will think seriously about how they select and recruit students.

    I did want to share a story that happened to an undergraduate in my lab in the case that it will help students in a similar situations. My undergraduate, a URM, had very little research experience, having just started in my group the same semester they applied to REUs. The student applied to 2 REU programs that are at very prestigious institutions doing research in their dream field (which is somewhat different from the research in my lab). My student was also planning on applying to PhD programs in the upcoming fall. They heard from program #1 and was told that they had just ~2 weeks to decide. Additionally, program #1 said if the student didn’t commit ASAP, they might not get assigned any of their top projects. Program #2 (the student’s preferred program) had not yet started interviewing applicants and their timeline for making decisions was over 1 month away. This situation made us both a little stressed. We discussed the best strategy for handling this and decided that the student should contact program #2 and tell them that they had gotten the offer from program #1 and had to confirm within a couple weeks. The student also told program #2 that they were excited about that program, and didn’t think they had enough information to make a decision to accept program #1 without talking to program #2. In response, program #2 set up a skype interview with the student the next day and made them an offer shortly afterward. The student ended up going to program #2 and actually will be starting a PhD at the same institution this fall. I think had the student not talked to program #2, they would have accepted to go to program #1. The experience would have probably still been great, but having choices is really wonderful for students who never expected to get in to any program. This experience was educational for me, because I have worked with other students this year who have had to make similar decisions. I am really glad both programs saw promise in this awesome undergrad, even if it may not have been clear that they would be great on paper. However, the stress the situation caused the student wasn’t necessary, as they had a lot of other things going on at the time. I really hope a better approach to selecting students will save everyone time and emotional stress. If nothing changes next year, I hope these students realize that they may also have some power to make things happen if they ask.

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