Interview with Professor William Gasarch on the REU Admissions Process

by Sydney Rowan

Professor William Gasarch is the director of the REU program at the University of Maryland. Gasarch received his doctorate in Computer Science from Harvard in 1985. He then became a Full Professor at the University of Maryland in 1998. He is known for his work in computational complexity theory, computability theory, computational learning theory, and Ramsey theory. Professor Gasarch has helped over 45 undergraduates on research projects. He is not mentoring any projects in the computer science REU this summer; instead he is in charge of admissions, setting up activities, and overseeing the entire program.

I asked Dr. Gasarch about what it takes to be a future REU student, and what the admissions process is like.

Sydney Rowan: What is your role as director of the REU students this summer?

William Gasarch: I do all the admissions. There were 190 students that applied, and I picked out who the students will be that [will] come to the program. I [also] make letters of recommendation. I actually invite [students] in, and some say yes some say no and then I do it over again. I assign students to research projects based on what they say they want to work on and that [happens] before the program begins. Once it begins, I make sure everyone is happy. I organize various events: I organize lunches and field trips. I’m always saying, “Are you getting things done?”, and “Are you having a good time?”. They could replace me with an IA program that says, “Are you working on something?”

SR: What has been the best part of working with the students this year?

WG: So far the best part has been when one of the groups was working on coloring a plane, I project I actually know about. They actually had some really big break throughs on it. That was nice. Often [students discover] things I don’t know and I don’t care about, or things that I already know. Having the combination of don’t know and care about is unusual.

SR: Describe your job in three words:

WG: Admissions. Cheerleader. Counselor.

SR: Why do you think it is important to get research experience as an undergrad?

WG: Okay two reasons: if they have research experience as an undergraduate they can decide more intelligently if they want to go to grad school or not, mostly they do. The other issue is they have more sense of what grad school is going to be like when they go there. One more thing, when you apply to grad school in compsi they do not care about ballroom dancing, and they don’t care about Latin. They care about math, compsi, and previous research experience. People at a smaller school cannot really have research experiance [that] the NSF actually requires. I agree with this. At least half of our students are from non research schools, so they get a chance to do research they wouldn’t normally have. It will also look good for going to grad school.


SR: What is the REU application process like? What are some requirements?

WG: Okay students apply through a website and they have to do a transcript, letters from faculty saying how awesome they actually are, and they are awesome, and also a personal statement saying why they want to come. They also say what they want to work on and why they want to work on it. Those are the three things. The process is I first look at grades. They have to have good grades, [if not] that is the killer in the first place. That really eliminates a lot of people. Then second thing is a personal statement. The first question is did they write one. I’m serious, that also gets rid of a lot of people. If you cannot tell my why you want to come, then you are not coming. Also, frankly, if your transcript is late that can be the school’s fault, if letters are late that can be the teachers’ fault, but if your personal statement is late that’s on you. However, having said that, once I have that it’s like a madhouse. I have 40 to 50 really good students, and then it depends on various factors. I’ll be honest here one is gender and ethnicity, but also who is being funded by what sources. The hardest thing though is how many students can be on which projects. If too many people want to do crypto, [then] they cannot all come here. So as advise for you or anyone [reading], when you apply to a program that has seven projects and you actually like three or fourof them say that so I’ll know where to place you.

SR: What qualities are you looking for in a future REU student? 

WG: A good GPA, a good statement, and good letters.

SR: Describe some different activities you have set up for the REU students this year:

WG: So far every Monday we have a lunch. Over lunch they have math problems that they work on in groups. We also have a game night, where the entire gang got together from four o’clock in the afternoon until nine at night playing various board games that I brought in. That was fun. Again, most think that is fun. Samir took them on a nice hike, and Clyde is going to take them to the Spy Museum.

SR: What is the best word of advice you would give to current or future REU students?

WG: Do well in your courses, impress the people you take courses from, have a clear idea of why you want be an REU student, and write a statement.

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