Hello. I’m a freshly pressed Bachelor’s in A Hard Science and I’m new here to Tenure, She Wrote. I’m here to provide some fresh perspective from the smol side of academia–namely, how my experiences in undergrad have shown me what we need to change in Everyday Academia.
I’m here to share some stories about everyone’s favorite Thing That Looks CV Impressive–the REU.
REU’s (Research Experience for Undergrads) are typically touted as these absolutely amazing internships–the Rolls Royces of summer research. Us students supposedly get good (for students) salary, amazing mentorship, and the chance to come into our own as researchers by doing our own projects away from a home institution.
As someone who has been through two REU’s and an international exchange, let me tell you how much that isn’t true. And I don’t just mean the fantasy of the REU is false advertising for POC–it’s quite often problematic for white folks, too. Most of the time, PIs-even well meaning ones-fail their students. Mostly, REU’s function as a vehicle for departments to get cheap workers, without the underlying responsibility of actually mentoring students This is especially damaging for first gen folks and POC, who don’t know how to maneuver around academic social rules in order to maximize the REU experience. This is an almost cosmic irony, since most REUs specifically call for underrepresented students to apply.
I think the best way to explain this is to contrast my two REU’s: the first one was labelled ‘non-prestigious’ but ended up being my formative academic experience. The second was a hyper-prestigious internship at a Famous Place, and it almost made me quit science entirely. The reason I want to contrast these two experiences is because they basically form the two types of REU. Either REU’s are built around the needs of the (diverse) students it recruits; or it is built around the persona of the institution which houses it, subjecting students to the whims of the departments around them.
My first REU structured itself in two parts: a summer where you were sent to work with a mentor who did research in a field you were interested in, and then a second half where you basically develop the research you did into a cohesive poster and abstract for a conference. You also are taught throughout the second half of the course how to communicate your research to the public: not only through public speaking coursework but also presenting your research to students in your local area. This is a lot of work, especially since this REU is geared towards minoritized students in the middle years of their undergrad career. There is also a lot of people involved: your mentor and their lab members, the NSF coordinator, your possible lab partner, and of course the schools which you contact to give lessons.
The reason this works, and students don’t simply burn out of this internship–which ran successfully for a decade–is because PIs and NSF coordinators involved took their roles seriously. Not only were PI’s available to the REU students, but an active effort was made to integrate students into being part of the lab. Not only did my PI check in with me every week; but they made it clear that if I wanted to continue my research into a manuscript at my home institution, they would provide me all the help I needed. The NSF coordinators as well, made it very clear that they had our best interests in mind: even if that meant taking PIs down a peg, or letting us explore facets of scientific career outside academia. This effort from the REU personnel coalesced into more-or-less well oiled machine for pumping out undergrad scientists. When this REU concluded, our final posts to our NSF-mandated blogs all wax poetic about our newfound resolve to pursue graduate degrees. I maintained a steady relationship with my PI from this internship, even up until I applied to graduate school three years later. They and I still talk; when I confided to them that I didn’t feel as if I had applied to enough schools for my PhD, they sent me 4 other positions with PI’s they trusted to mentor me.
My second REU is a different story. While the REU itself touted itself as being inclusionary, the opposite was true. The majority of participants were repeat students whose PIs had connections to the main research institution, or whose home labs did. The main research labs were also undergoing a top-down takeover by a new academic parent: and neither the participating PI’s nor the NSF coordinators made any attempt to hide the inter-institutional drama from us. Walking in on PI’s squabbling over funding or equipment was common, and there was scant oversight over how PI’s individually treated and used their students. At lunchtime, even returning students would say aloud how they felt coerced by their PIs to either continue in dead-end projects, or work in a lab where they fundamentally felt unsafe or undervalued. Even when prompted by myself and other students over the conditions in the labs we were working for, the NSF coordinator merely shrugged and assured us that this was how academia worked.
And while this REU attempted to ‘teach’ us how to apply to graduate school, it only reinforced how exclusionary academia is to people of color. Invited speakers were “representative” sometimes, but I find it hard to believe that it was mere coincidence that every woman of color who spoke to us talked about the hardship of being in academia–while the white men told us about how they could afford a house. The two NSF coordinators also routinely diminished the teaching and research of their peers who taught at R2 and R3 schools, despite the fact the majority of the REU students were from these smaller institutions. “R3s are not places you want to end up at–they aren’t places where good research happens”. I guess we were supposed to feel grateful that this prestigious REU saved us from our small schools; but it’s hard to feel anything positive towards a coordinator who joked at one of the Latina girls in the program that he was surprised she could even read “considering you’re from (southern state school)” on the first day of the program; or who routinely pulled me aside after classes to gossip with me about everyone else’s shoddy state of funding.
Not only did the NSF coordinator eventually make it clear to me that my presence at the REU was based more on their relationship with one of my advisors than my CV, they also made it pretty clear that we were at the mercy of the REU. If we didn’t like our PIs or if we never saw our PIs during working hours, the solution was to have the NSF coordinator simply write a letter of rec for us–even if they had never seen us work in the lab. Between the fact that my PI didn’t sit me down for guidance until week 5 of the 10 week REU and the drama of being at a hostile institution, I spent a lot of time at this REU wandering around weighing plant samples, watching Netflix, or hiding in my office doing data cleanup for a project I didn’t even understand. I can’t really say I learned more than three techniques throughout this cycle: which is a pretty poor return rate for an NSF funded internship. After I presented my poster at my home institution, I never touched that data or spoke to anyone from that REU again. The NSF basically spent a little under 5K on me and 13 other students, only for most of us to leave the REU and science academia altogether.
What I am trying to illustrate with these stories is that the quality of the research experience at these NSF REUs are entirely dependent on the people who run them at the local level. And, as my secondary REU can attest to, the people at the local level–the ones who can actively make or break a student–can really be out here damaging students completely unchecked. This isn’t even entirely on the broad shoulders of the NSF–instead, its a problem common in academia. We aren’t willing to change if we can find enough people to play the game, or if we are successful are silencing dissenting voices. I and other students cannot give the NSF honest feedback on how we felt at a given REU if we are forced to answer the NSF survey with our coordinators watching, or if we have to pay to reserve a space in our REU, or any number of things I and other students experienced. I might not have a PhD, but I don’t think it takes a doctoral degree to see that something problematic has happened to what could overall be a good program.
Not only has the spirit of the REU been tainted by bad actors, but we seem to be ignoring the fact that participation in an REU (or in multiple ones) is starting to become a filter for graduate schools (and PIs) to admit students. Barring total honesty between a PI and a student looking for a graduate position, there isn’t currently a way to rank the actual quality of the REUs a student has participated in. We use institutional clout to test quality by proxy, but if I can have (one of) the world’s worst REU experiences at one of the premier marine research labs in the world, clearly this is a faulty metric. We are also letting toxic institutions and people soak up NSF resources when they don’t fundamentally deserve it; no one should get a prize for being the first hole in the leaky pipeline of academia. Either we need more institutional oversight, better ways for students to report bad actors and bad coordinators in the REUs that won’t risk their careers, or we need to stop using REUs as a filter for graduate positions. Something needs to give, because we are excluding brilliant students from graduate school because of their perceived lack of experience–even if that perception is false.
Also, before any of you try and duck me with the old “an anecdote is not data”, please stop and ask yourself: how many of my and the hundreds (if not thousands) of other anecdotes about bad REU’s will you need before our experiences become data. and you admit there is a problem?