Getting lots of competitive REU applications from URM students


We did a thing that worked. Maybe you could try it. It’s something that I’ve suggested before, but now some results are in and I’m sharing it with you.

If you’re looking to recruit more undergraduates to your campus for summer research opportunities (and more), listen up.

You know how when drug developers are doing a clinical trial, but they stop the trial early because the results are so promising, that they are ethically bound to give the treatment to everybody in the control group? That’s how I feel about what I’m telling you today.

A lot of the students in my department are interested in research and have serious chops. Our own labs on campus are maxed out, which is what happens when you have 700 majors and a half-dozen research-active tenure-track faculty. So there still are plenty of students looking for summer research opportunities. And we also want students who are working in our labs to head off and gain experiences elsewhere (especially if we don’t have the funding for them for a full summer).

There’s so much talk about how summer programs are looking for students from underrepresented groups to apply, because they are either looking to boost their numbers or they’re genuinely interested in transforming the discipline with equity and inclusion.  But our experience has been that programs aren’t so interested in recruiting our students. At least, that’s what the students are perceiving. Some of our students have gotten into some highly competitive REUs. But programs are attracting a silly high number of applicants, and students who want a summer research opportunity might have to apply to well over a dozen if they want to be sure to get into one. Keep in mind that there are a lot of REU programs out there that are inherently not jazzed about taking students from Cal State Dominguez Hills, because they’d rather take students from universities they have heard of before that sound like they have students with a fancier pedigree. But pedigrees are for show dogs, right?

That’s a huge amount of activation energy required to have the hope of an opportunity. And also there’s the problem that a good number of REU programs have real problems with inclusion of marginalized students, and this is often true for the ones in whiter and more prestigious places. So, some of our students who do end up getting into REUs have bad experiences, and then that’s what some people call a pipeline problem. (Especially considering that my university student population is less than 10% white.)

So, perennially frustrated with students not getting into REU programs and having bad experiences with REU programs, plan B is pretty awesome.

I don’t entirely remember how this went down, but a colleague at a different university approached me about getting an REU supplement for me to recruit a couple students in my department. That went well enough to pursue this further — when they were writing a new proposal, slots for three undergrads in the summer for three years were written into the proposal. My end would be to get students to apply on our end, and I can support the students as needed when come back to school in the fall.

And yay! The proposal got funded. And right now, I’m collecting applications for students to head of for a summer of research.

[update on 10 June 2020: It turns out that after the first year of funding ended, well before the pandemic was on the radar, the PI of the award decided to pull the support for students from my university and decided to allocate the REU funding to students who were already attending their own university. Fortunately, I was able to work with the program officer from the funding agency to gain some support for the students who had this opportunity revoked from them, but there was a net loss of four summer REU opportunities in my department.]

And boy howdy, let me tell you, I am getting a mountain of applications.

Soooooooooooo many students are applying. Students who have never applied to do REUs. And this is an opportunity across the country, too. I’ve encouraged students to a apply for all kinds of things and they are not applying for them, but they’re applying for this.

Why? Well, I have a bunch of ideas. I can guess. But why do that when I can just ask the students who are applying?

Here’s what they’re saying (paraphrased because I don’t actually have that kind of memory): “It didn’t seem like a waste of time to apply.” “I know this lab wants students from CSUDH so it looks like a good opportunity.” “This sounds like a cool project.” “If you vouch for them then that’s good enough for me.”

Students are applying for this summer research opportunity because they don’t think it’s a long shot. And because they aren’t as afraid that they won’t be disrespected by people in their host labs (which too many of our students have experienced in REUs). And they have enough trust in me to apply for a thing that I’m offering. (I mean, it’s not my lab or my mentorship over the summer, but I’m the bridge here.) This means that we have some difficult decisions ahead because there are a lot of talented people who won’t get this opportunity. This is not a bad problem to have, compared to the status quo we’ve been experiencing.

What can this mean for you? Are you trying to recruit more students from underrepresented groups into your lab for the summer? It’s often considered best practice that to reach a diverse applicant pool, that you should advertise broadly. I think that’s true, if you’re hiring a person for a faculty person or a postdoc or some other form employment. But if you’re looking for a summer research intern/mentee? Then you can highly target a population of students that is what you’re looking for. Find a colleague at a minority-serving institution or HBCU or TCU who would like to create more research opportunities for their students. This would involve a relationship of trust and mutual respect for the faculty member you’re dealing with, and of their students as well. This isn’t something that can happen overnight, and we’ve built up to his for a few years since the concept was first floated.

Lots of people look us up and say, “have your students apply!” But so far, only one person who I trust has told me, “I have spaces for your students, and I commit to supporting them.” That has made all the difference.

6 thoughts on “Getting lots of competitive REU applications from URM students

  1. This is a great idea!

    We’ve got a similar population here at the West campus of Arizona State University, but what I’ve noticed is that we’ve got a lot of “nontraditional students” who can’t leave town for an REU. Some can’t pay the plane ticket to get there, some have to earn more money than the REU provides, some have obligations that don’t allow them to leave the county, some have a reasonably well paying job they can’t leave for a summer, etc. How do we support them?

    • Hmm.. I have two thoughts.

      Thought 1. I this this characterizes our student population very well too, with the travel and the jobs and the family and all that. Definitely a barrier to getting some cool opportunities. But yet, over the last couple years, we’ve been seeing more and more students doing (or applying for) these summer programs than we have in the past. It’s apparently not a change in the demographics of our majors, but instead, I think it’s a cultural shift in the department. We’ve steadily increased the number of students doing research elsewhere (a bunch of them have been to Costa Rica with me, or off to Australia on a program I ran), and word is out among the students about what these opportunities offer. For example, there was a student who came to Costa Rica with me last summer for two weeks. It was a huge stretch for her to do this – she’s responsible for all her own expenses, she works the night shift, takes a full course load during the year, and such. It was legit hard for her to get away for those two weeks. But I saw her yesterday and she was applying for this thing for the whole summer — at her work apparently she asked her boss folk and they can give her the summer off, because they have a couple other people now who can cover the night shift, and as long as her stipend is around 5k, she can pull it off. I never thought she’d be able to, without losing her job, but now she can! This is partly because she had a great research experience in the short term which inspired her to find a way to do the long term (there’s an old research recruit post about this on here by the way). But I think in general, more and more students are talking about trying to be creative and making it happen. That said, I get it, it’s TOTALLY real that a lot of students absolutely can’t go elsewhere. But maybe that number might shift as the culture of a department shifts?

      Thought 2. For students who can’t go for long times away, intense research expeditions are a good thing. (Blueprint Earth is an option I think too?) I do that with LSAMP students for two weeks in Costa Rica. But maybe shorter trips to partner labs? Alternatively, I mean, I would really seriously hope that for you, ASU Tempe would be all over this kind of thing for you? But then I realize that might not be true at all, after all, UCLA and USC are showing no interest in building connections to mentor our students, in general the pattern is that they’re recruiting summer students from more prestigious institutions further away. So, not much help, I know.

      • As someone at ASU Tempe, I can say that we are often in search of good REU students. However, slight differences in our semester schedule and other semester schedules (not to mention the quarter schedules of the Cali schools) create barriers to finding applicants who will be around for the right time period in the summers. We also find that it is difficult to get the word out, and we have a pretty diverse local population. So when biologists and applied mathematicians look for REU students, they often ask faculty on campus to offer up their best students, and we end up getting a pretty cool batch in terms of gender, ethnic, and disciplinary diversity. But we could do better!

        I think using REU’s to grow connections between ASU Tempe and ASU West, Poly, etc. is a fantastic idea. We just need more faculty talking between campuses and finding ways to get the advertisements out.

  2. Terry, this is so amazingly powerful for CSUDH students! Such a huge leap forward, and incredibly impactful. #verklempt

  3. Most REU’s that i’ve seen cater to minority students and non-minorities can’t seem to get into any REU programs. A non-minority with a low-income family, no vehicle, and an empty wallet can’t go far. Also, summer is an important time to work so that tuition can be paid by August.

    • REU participation is 70% white. They do not cater to minorities and the emphasis on broadening participation is about making the community more inclusive. Even with programs that support minoritized students, this isn’t having enough impact as representation isn’t changing all that much.

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