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REU/SURF/SURP/Summer Program Vs. PhD Acceptance Rates


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Hello everyone. 

I've been lurking for quite a long time now and finally decided to sprout from the shadows. I am applying to Biology (Biochem, Mol. Bio. , Cell Bio. , etc...) programs this fall of 2013 and I was wondering how summer research programs in biology and PhD programs tend to compare when it comes to their acceptance rates. I understand that these two take into consideration different things, however, I was also told by some people that summer program applications tend to be some sort of "mini grad school" application and that many times faculty members/recruiters even start looking at potential students during the summer programs. I also heard that many summer programs tend to be extremely competitive to get into (when it comes to %'s), some even more than PhD programs. Is this true? 

Also, if it isn't too much to ask, would you guys consider that having a summer research program under your belt help you when it comes to grad school applications themselves? 


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I can't speak specifically to biology, but REUs seem to be more or less as you described.  They have a couple of disadvantages and advantages compared to a longer term research experience in a lab at your home institution that are worth considering:

1) They tend to be short term, which makes it harder to take a project from proposal to publication.

2) You are exposed to faculty at different institutions, which can either help or hurt very specifically for applications to that institution--if you are a flake or don't meet expectations (maybe you were having too much fun with all those other REUs, happens surprisingly often) it certainly won't help, but if you act like a prototypical grad student and spend insane hours in the lab and come to a neat conclusion to boot, clearly this is a major bonus when faculty there remember you.

3) If you are applying to a different university than where the REU took place, it is more or less like any other research experience on your resume (maybe a little more prestigious in acceptance, but not as informative or impressive as working with your home lab for 3-4 years).


My program (including many biologists studying the subfields you mentioned above) appears to take roughly half its students from former REUs (actually called something different, but same idea). I think that is mostly because more former REUs apply than otherwise, not necessarily an acceptance bias--if you ask individual faculty, the experiences of hosting REUs are on net neutral. In other words, as many former REUs are selected against becuase of how they spent their time here as are are given a boost. For perspective, my program is one of the top handful in my field globally, so we get more guest students than the average.

Edited by Usmivka
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Having a REU or similar helps more because it adds to your research experience credentials more than anything else. Certainly, it helps you in real life because you got this experience and maybe published (or certainly, a letter of rec). 


Depending on the prestige (this lends to higher applicant #s), REUs can be quite competitive, but like PhDs, they span a range from low to very, very high accepts. 


I would say on the whole though that PhDs are way more difficult to get into than an REU. It's really not close in my opinion. For a qualified applicant, even if the applicant pool is higher for some REUs, on a %-basis, there are fewer qualified individuals applying to any given REU than to a PhD, hence competition for PhDs is much more difficult.

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Thank you for your replies. I am an international student currently studying in the US and I somehow managed to get into a summer research program (very few accept or even consider international students), I hope this helps me overcome my international status when applying to grad school this year. 

Best of luck! 

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  • 4 weeks later...

Doing a summer program at a particular school will help you get into that particular school, if you do well there. Some programs even wave application fees for their summer students. I did a REU a long time ago, and we got heavily recruited by that particular school. I did not apply there, but summer students likely would have received at least an interview there. This is true for most schools. The top 5-10 schools are probably the main exception to this.

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