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.
- A ton of qualified applicants don’t get into any REUs, even though they applied to many programs.
- A small number of applicants apply to several REUs, and get into nearly all of the ones that they’re applying to.
- 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?