The title of this post is actually a search phrase someone used today that led them to my blog. Regular readers probably have picked up on the fact that I run an NSF REU site program. i.e. I'm PI on the grant. Right now I'm in the midst of organizing things for this summer's participants and should really be focussing on that, not writing a blog post. In many ways it's the busiest time of year for me, despite the fact semester ended four weeks ago. REU sites are a lot of work. From the advertising/recruiting, to sorting through the many applications*, to making offers, assigning labs, organizing accommodations, booking flights for participants who live too far away to drive, corralling people to give various presentations etc., putting together the ethics component**, tracking the career trajectories of previous participants for the rest of my life, and on and on. A lot of work.
Did I mention the NSF won't allow any of the REU funds to be used for administrative help? Sure, my department is kind enough to provide us with some help, but it still largely falls on the shoulders of myself and my Co-PI.
At my institution it doesn't/didn't help with tenure. Which is why I didn't start the program until after I was tenured.
The faculty in the department like having the undergrads in their labs for the summer for free, but would survive just fine without them. So it buys me some goodwill, but not a lot.
I often have one of the participants in my lab for the summer, but I could fairly easily get a supplement from the NSF to do this without having to run a whole site program.
So why do it?
Because I like involving undergrads in research. Because I think the goal of the NSF REU program, to give research experiences to undergrads who don't have ready access to them, is a good one.
The idea with REU programs is to provide research experience to students so that they can decide whether or not to pursue a career in research. Or science in general. And the focus is supposed to be on students who don't have lots of research opportunities at their home institutions. So we recruit heavily from four-year colleges and end up with kids who don't necessarily know which is the business end of a pipette. But they're interested in learning. And enthusiastic. And it's such a blast watching them develop over the summer into scientists. And many of our past participants have been very, very good. Once they work out the pipette thing. That's part of why I do it.
Some have decide by the end of the summer that research is not for them. I consider those successes - they're not wasting their time and someone else's time and money going to grad school to figure out it's not what they want to do.*** This is another reason I do it.
Others have gone on to grad school. Some at some of the best institutions in the country. More reasons to do it.
Bottom line is I do it because I enjoy it. In the end that's the most tangible benefit for me. But it's also the best one.
* ~130 applications this year for eight positions. That's an NIH-like success rate for the applicants.
** Now mandatory if you're funded through BIO.
*** REU programs are a hell of a lot cheaper than grad school.