What to Expect at Your Summer Research Experience

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Pathways - Advice from Experienced Voices

What to Expect at Your Summer Research Experience


Rachel Kaufman, Contributing Writer

Dr. Kiril Streletzky and SPS Member, Karen Johnson, align a laser beam at Cleveland State University’s Light Scattering Spectroscopy Lab. Photo courtesy Dr. Kiril Streletzky.

Congratulations on landing a summer research position. Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) and other summer research experiences are not just great fun but also important resume builders and a great way to expand your network of peers in the physics community.

If you’ve never done anything like this before, don’t worry! The professors you’re working with want you to succeed.

There is another advocate in your corner: Kiril Streletzky, the zone councilor for Zone 7 and a physics professor at Cleveland State University (CSU) who organizes (along with co-PI Jessica Bickel) a REU at the school. We spoke to Kiril about ways to make the most out of your 10 weeks.

Observer: What do students need to do to prepare before they even start their REU?

Streletzky: The first thing they need to figure out is which project they're going to be working on. Sometimes students need to double-check this. Ideally, they should know what they are getting into before they arrive, but they should be proactive and find out for themselves. Get in touch with the project leader. Ask, "What would you advise me to read up on, and do you have a specific thing you want me to start looking at?" REUs are only 10 weeks. It makes sense for students to be familiar with the project before they come. It's full-time employment for 10 weeks, but still.

Observer: Is that an adjustment for students, going from classroom to essentially full-time work?

Streletzky: I suspect it might be, and not necessarily because of the hours but because of the intensity. In addition to work in the lab, the students have seminars, colloquia, lectures, field trips. It's a very busy schedule. At the REU at CSU, it's basically something every day.

Dr. Kiril Streletzky (PI), Dr. Nolan Holland, Dr. Jessica Bickel (co-PI), Dr. Miron Kaufman, Dr. Petru Fodor, Dr. Andrew Resnick, Dr. Chris Wirth, Dr. Geyou Ao, Not Pictured - Dr. Chandra Kothpalli. Participating faculty of the Softmatter REU at Cleveland State University. Photo courtesy Dr. Kiril Streletzky

Observer: OK. What's important for students to do during week one?

Streletzky: Students need to not be afraid of questions. They need to get to know the other students in the program, the program coordinator, and the administrative staff, figuring out who are the people to contact. And, of course, getting to know the advisor as well.

Observer: Are there norms at an REU that might come as a surprise for undergraduates? Is, say, attire different in a lab than in a classroom?

Streletzky: Attire is not a problem, except for formal presentation days. Students usually will have to present their project to the rest of the REU community, and usually there will be a poster session or symposium. I was judging posters at the APS March Meeting and a few kids had no idea how to dress up for a poster session. So an REU will give you a chance to learn that maybe you shouldn't be barefoot.

Observer: What else should students expect as far as the "work" world goes?

Streletzky: Being flexible is one important thing. Maybe some days you will have to work in the lab more than eight hours, but on other days you don't have to do as much. It makes sense to live on campus...so you are close to your lab space, and then it's not a problem to stay later one day.

On the other hand, one important idea of REUs is to build a community. It depends on the program...in other programs they have a number of mandated social activities. They want to make sure you are not sitting in your room in the off hours. They want you to network.

Observer: Should you prioritize connecting with peers, then?

Streletzky: The top priority should always be to learn as much as possible. During an REU, you learn a lot about a general research field, and even more about a specific research problem... but you also learn a huge amount about collaborative work. You will certainly work closely with your faculty adviser, but you will also find collaborators in your peers in the lab and in the REU. They will understand what you are going through and trying to achieve, and will be able to help you navigate many challenges through the summer. It definitely makes sense to prioritize connecting with them.

Observer: What should you do in your final week?

Streletzky: Don't work on the project until the very end. Make sure that whatever you have done has a very good record. Ten weeks is a short time, and rarely is it possible to complete something publishable as a paper, but it's extremely important for students...to have a good record of what has been done. They might not pay attention to the results during the summer, but later on they will likely come back to this. There might be a paper hiding in there that they didn't realize at the time of the REU.

The last week, in my mind, is wrapping up and making sure that none of what has been done is lost. Very often it happens that you have this excitement—you're trying to get more data and more analysis and you're working up to the last moment getting new stuff, but then you leave to a different part of the country. You forget about it, your advisor forgets about it.

Observer: For readers who did not land an REU this summer, how should they prepare for the next round of REU applications?

Streletzky: Try to land some sort of research-related opportunity this coming summer. Maybe a research project for credit. That is usually something that helps you stand out as a candidate. You can see that students are serious about research.

Also work on building your network. Not all REUs and other research experiences are advertised on job sites like through the National Science Foundation, or SPS Jobs or a job site. Making connections will let you find these REUs before they are posted. Having decent grades helps, too.

Observer: Any final thoughts on what students should expect?

Streletzky: They should expect the time of their lives, really. It's an exciting experience to get. And to get to know professors who will be working with you. That's a big step. Those professors are the lead letter writers for graduate school and potential jobs. It's one thing to get a letter of recommendation from a professor who taught you in a course. It's a completely different thing to get a letter from a professor you worked with or presented with.

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