I’ve talked to a lot of talented undergraduates who have been in search of summer research opportunities, but end up not having any options available.
Doctoral programs expect undergraduate applicants to have meaningful research experience. This might not be on the application checklist, but it’s essentially a requirement. That means if we’re trying to be equitable about access to graduate education, that means we have make sure that access to undergraduate research experiences is equitable.
The best way to know if a student is going to excel in research is to see how well do they do research. As many grad programs are dropping or de-emphasizing quantitative measures that are poor predictors for research success, we have to step up our game to make sure that access to qualitative measures reflect a student’s potential rather than their connections to resources. The most common measure is a recommendation from a research mentor.
Research opportunities during the academic year are hard to come upon for students who need to work at least 20 hours per week or more during the academic year. A student could sign up for course credit, or volunteer, or might land a paid position, but the reality (at least, the reality I’m familiar with) is that this often not a workable option for many students. Which makes summer opportunities all the more important.
We know that summer research opportunities for undergraduates can be a gateway into a successful research career. That’s why NSF invests heavily into the REU program. I don’t have access to system-wide application numbers, but anecdotally, I’ve gathered that REU programs receive far more applicants than slots. On my campus, there’s an externally funding training program that expects participants to do summer research off campus for at least one summer. To this end, the program asks students to apply to ten different REU-type opportunities. Just to make sure they get into at least one.
When REU programs get a mountain of applications, the REU selection committees evolve into a premature filter for grad school applications. And when programs start picking among applicants based on GPA and non-REU research experiences — in addition to the prestige of their undergraduate institution — then this filter gets even worse. While in concept REUs are supposed to broaden the “pipeline,” they also can serve as a bottleneck, with an inappropriately designed filter. Especially when some REU host laboratories are more interested in picking students who they think will generate the best data, rather than those who can benefit the most from quality mentorship.
There is a ton of demand for research opportunity among undergrads, and even more so for genuine field experience. One piece of evidence that that demand outstrips supply is that many folks exploit students by having them work full-time for free. And there are wealthy people wholly willing to sign on to these “opportunities” to gain experience, reserving many training opportunities in field research for the wealthy. People who need to earn money to pay their bills are stuck with less access to the profession. When there are fewer opportunities for paid summer research, then the disadvantage experienced by those who aren’t wealthy amplifies.
I would expect some fraction of people reading this will be thinking to themselves something along the lines of, “But there’s a shortage of academic jobs and a surplus of graduate students, so why do we need to worry about recruiting undergrads?” If you find yourself in that category, here’s my reply.
As an example, consider my department. We have about 600 biology majors. Nevertheless, we have just a few tenure-track faculty in our department who are operating research labs that provide paid opportunities to students throughout the summertime. Each of these labs only has space for a few students. We have way way more undergraduates with a great capacity to excel at research, who want summer research opportunities than we could ever possibly serve. Of course that number is far below our 600ish majors, but it’s still above the handful that we can support in our own institution. We do what we can to facilitate opportunities for students elsewhere. While I’m not saying it’s the job of other universities or the federal government to make sure that every student who wants a research experience should have one, I should point out that the universities that share our demand vs. supply problem are the ones that are chock full of the students who are needed to be recruited into research careers to meet national benchmarks for diversity, equity, and inclusion. And the universities that don’t have supply problem for summer research tend to be the ones that principally serve the overrepresented demographic.
I don’t know if there is an actual shortage of summer research opportunities, when you add them all up. But for the populations that are underrepresented in our disciplines, demand greatly outstrips supply. What can you do about this? You could keep this in mind while you’re inviting REU applicants, and while you’re selecting among applications. Here’s another idea, if you’re at an institution that could use some more underrepresented trainees. When you’re writing a grant, you could partner up with a colleague at a different institution and build their students into your proposal. So far, one person has suggested such an arrangement with me. They got funded, and we’re making it happen next summer. Yay! Of course, I agreed to this because I knew they’d be welcomed into a host lab where they’ll receive appropriate mentorship and support.
I’m not prescribing a mass effort to increase the number of slots for undergraduate researchers in the summer. Considering the relative lack of mentorship training and inclusion issues on campuses, this could just make things worse. But as we’re going about our business, we should remember that for many students, getting an opportunity for a mentored research experience is not necessarily a reflection of prior merit or research potential. And this is one of the many roadblocks to professional STEM careers for undergraduates.