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Undergraduate Research Opportunities

 

Frequently Asked Qustions
about REU's and Summer Research

compiled by Jennifer Hoffman
and updated by Julie Comerford
from the UCB Astronomy Department's first REU info session, 1/26/05



NOTE: Most applications for summer research programs are due in January and February. It's best to start planning for these in late fall; after the Thanksgiving break but before final exams is a good time. Beginning in 2005, the UCB Astronomy Department will hold REU information sessions in early December.
What is an REU?

REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) is the National Science Foundation's name for their summer undergrad research programs. There are programs at colleges and universities, observatories, and museums across the country and internationally. Lists of astronomy programs are at http://www.aas.org/education/reu.htm, http://www.nsf.gov/home/crssprgm/reu/list_result.cfm?unitid=5045%20, and on our local research links page. These programs include a stipend and lodging; some pay for travel as well.

Note that REU's are not the only way to get research experience; it is not necessary to have the letters "REU" on your resume to get into grad school! The important thing is to have some kind of introduction to research, no matter where it comes from. See the next question for examples of other non-REU ways to get involved in research (summer or otherwise).


What other kinds of research experience can I get?

Several other organizations run national summer research programs, including NASA and the Department of Energy. Many other institutions, such as national observatories, run their own local programs. You can find partial lists of other summer opportunities at http://www.aas.org/career/summer.php and on our local research links page.

Here in Berkeley, there are many summer and year-round opportunities at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (http://www.lbl.gov/Education/CSEE/cup/), the Space Sciences Laboratory (http://www.ssl.berkeley.edu/research/fellowships.php), and in the physics and astronomy departments. Ask Dexter in astronomy, Claudia in physics, or your favorite professor for help finding local research groups. Also check out the UC LEADS program, which pairs students with faculty at other UC campuses (http://research.berkeley.edu/otheropps/UCLeads/UCLeads.html), and the other links on the UCB undergraduate research page at http://research.berkeley.edu.

Again, these opportunities allow you to work for pay, and in cases where you have to travel to the research site, they should arrange for your lodging as well.


What about international opportunities?

Several international programs exist. Some REU's are in other countries (see links above); the AAS summer research page (http://www.aas.org/career/summer.php) is a good place to look for other international research leads. Also ask professors you know if they have suggestions. Often you can create your own position if your professor knows someone at an institution in another country.


How do I apply?

Most people do summer research after their sophomore and/or junior years, but some programs accept graduating seniors. The summer deadlines are usually in January and February, so start thinking about it late in the fall semester. You'll need letters of recommendation from people who can talk about your skills, reliability, work ethic, potential as a scientist, etc. Ask professors or scientists you've worked with or whose classes you've taken to write you letters; it's also okay to get letters from supervisors at other (nonacademic) jobs. You'll also need a personal statement that shows your enthusiasm for the topic and talks about your specific interests, as well as sets you apart from other applicants in some way. If you are interested in a particular type of project (observing vs. theory, stars vs galaxies, infrared vs. optical, etc.), especially one that's offered at the place you're applying, it's good to put that in too. Ask a grad student or professor to read your statement and give you comments.


How hard is it to get in?

It depends on your experience and the position you're applying for. It's good to have taken at least one of the undergraduate labs before applying, and/or have some computer skills. Some research programs (like ones in Hawaii) are very popular, so they might be harder to get into your first time around or if you have little experience. In that case you might be better off choosing something a bit less impacted for your first research program; ask around to see where other people are and aren't applying. After you have one summer research experience, it will be easier to get a second one. Most people apply for several programs each year to maximize their chances.

Note that there's no standard deadline for making summer decisions, so it may be the case that you get an offer from one place and have to accept or decline before hearing about any others. If that happens, you'll just have to use your best judgment. However, most people seem to have a good experience no matter where they go.


What will I do during a research program?

Experiences differ from place to place, but the main point is to show you what life is really like as an astronomer. You might learn to use a telescope, reduce and analyze observational data, write software, design or build an instrument, construct a theoretical model, create a website, or do some teaching or public outreach. Often you will present your work in a talk or poster at the end of the summer, and many people continue on to give posters at conferences or publish papers on their summer research. In the fall semester after your summer program, you may be interested in taking Astro 199, Research Presentation in Astronomy, to learn how to write up and publish your results. Check out http://astron.berkeley.edu/~julie/astro199/ or email Julie Comerford (julie {at} astro.berkeley.edu) for more information.


Will I get to choose my research project?

This also varies from place to place. It is sometimes predictable beforehand (for example, if you go to a program at the National Radio Astronomy Observatories, you can expect to be working with radio observations as opposed to X-ray or optical data). Sometimes the program will offer you a list of potential projects from which you can choose. Other times you won't have a choice, or the project might not even be finalized yet when you get there! You can take some control over your research experience by communicating effectively with your summer advisor. The project should be well defined, with a clear goal. If it feels like you don't know what you should be doing, or won't be finished at the end of the summer, consult with your advisor to rethink the project or work out a way to continue working on it later.


Will I have any free time?

Yes, REU's and other summer programs are generally lots of fun. You will be working and living closely with other undergrads from around the country, and the program directors will often plan organized activities (and sometimes travel) for all the students. Aside from that, you'll usually have evenings and weekends free; some university programs are trying to recruit grad students, so they want you to have a good experience living in their city. Besides, most advisors realize that happy students are productive students. However, you should be careful to keep your priorities in order: it is supposed to be primarily a work experience, and in order to get the maximum benefit out of your research program, you should take it seriously and put in whatever time is necessary to do a good job. Just as in real life, that may occasionally mean working late or on weekends. It's all part of the learning experience.


What if I have other questions?

ASK! Good people to talk to are Dexter, Claudia, other undergrads who have done research internships, grad students, postdocs, or professors. These people will be happy to help you in whatever way they can.


Is there more information online?

Always! Here is a page with other useful links:       More REU and undergrad research links