Benefit of being a PI for a REU program

May 24 2011 Published by under Careers

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.

9 responses so far

  • Goose says:

    Speaking as an instructor in a science and math high school (and one that has just email their first graduating class about their REU options), I appreciate all those who take on the challenge of running these. Thank you!

  • Rxnh says:

    Thank You!

    My NSF REUs were about the most fun I've ever had living with people as nerdy as me (which are few and far between at my Uni) and learning about cool new science while working at a real RO1.

  • docstymie says:

    It's why you're also so good at it - you do it for the right reasons.
    Kudos to you!

  • [...] This kind of dude is a stone cold professorial mensch for doing thankless labor on behalf of very young would-be scientists. Really. I mean that. [...]

  • Rugosa says:

    I have worked at a State U that participated in an REU program. This is a terrific program that gives young people an entree into the world of research.

  • Rugosa says:

    I'd like to add - I don't remember now if the NSF grant had an overhead component. If it did, NSF was contributing to the admin costs, and your cheap-ass institution (like the one I worked for) was happy to suck the indirect cost money into the bottom line, but didn't provide the department with any more resources.

    • Odyssey says:

      The NSF does provide minimal indirects - if I remember correctly it's 25% of participant costs (stipend, accommodations and travel). That's far less than the actual cost of the program to the institution. Is my university cheap? Probably. But the indirects provided by the NSF for REU programs isn't enough to cover admin costs.

  • Whinnie says:

    I'm a co-PI on our REU grant and I am seriously questioning why anyone who wants to have a career as a scientist in academia would ever do this. As the owner of this blog pointed out, it doesn't really help with tenure (or promotion for that matter), it takes up lots of time that could be used for writing grant proposals and papers and really can cramp a person's schedule during the summer which is the only time that I and most of us have to get much done away from classes or committee assignments.

    Don't get me wrong, I think the REU programs are great and are necessary if we are to encourage young people to go into STEM careers. I very much enjoy having undergrads in my lab and think it is part of my job to train future scientists. I am even one of those people who take on the larger, first year courses because I don't want prospective majors to be scared away with a bad experience. All that being said, if I ever want to become a full professor, being a PI/co-PI on an REU program is NOT what I should be doing with my time. As valuable to the greater community the REU programs are, I don't think there are any real tangible incentives, and probably are only disincentives, for being a PI for an REU program.

    In my opinion, until P&T decisions are based on more than just obtaining grants and publishing papers, being a PI on an REU program should wait until you have obtained the highest rank/pay scale you desire. Someday perhaps, the value of teaching and service will get more than lip-service. However, since P&T committees are largely made up of people who were promoted based on just research; they will likely continue to only value research. It is a pity since I'd really like to recommend people run REU programs since they serve such a good purpose. However, those who do, run the risk of having their academic careers stagnate unless they have such a large research program or large enough department where they can afford some extra time to spend on it.

    • Odyssey says:

      The first two sentences of your second paragraph describe both the reasons and incentives for doing it. I agree that P&T committees should count running an REU site, but many don't. Should you stay Co-PI? Not if it's hurting your career as much as you seem to think it is. I strongly believe we should all be doing our part to encourage undergrads to consider science careers, but that's best done when your own career is on track.