Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The care and feeding of research students

Every summer, I hire 1-2 undergraduates to work in my lab. As I've mentioned countless times before, I really do enjoy working with undergrads. And since I owe my current career path to a stint as an undergraduate researcher in someone's lab, I look at it as my way of giving back to the field by training potential future grad students, who may one day go on to become professors, industrial researchers, or entrepeneurs.

This summer, I have 2 undergrad researchers. They are doing great work. They are smart, they pick things up extraordinarily quickly, and they are very hard workers. However, there is one problem: they are not at all self-motivated. I have to guide them through EVERYTHING. They are great when I tell them exactly what to do, but they are totally incapable of figuring out what to do on their own after they finish the task at hand. And they are not all that great in dealing with technical snafus or ambiguity.

Perhaps I've been really lucky in previous summers, but my previous students were much more self-motivated and much better equipped to deal with the ambiguities of research. The trade-off is that I tended to leave them alone much more than I should have, which meant that I didn't always have the clearest picture of what they were doing until after the fact. With this crew, I at least have a very clear picture of what they are doing--but that's because I am intimately involved in their work every step of the way.

As a professor and a PI, I know it is my job to help these students become more intellectually mature and to teach them what it means to "do" research. I'm sure I was not all that different from them when I started out. But doing this takes so much energy and time, and sometimes it's hard to remember (especially on days like today, when I didn't even sit down to do my own work until 4PM!) that the eventual payoff will be worth it--for me and, more importantly, for them. In the meantime, I will just keep pushing them to become more intellectually independent and to take on more responsibility in their projects.


Anonymous said...


I think I am so lucky to find ur blog, it is so exciting to have someone who share the expreiance of teaching and researching. I want to ask u please, if it is possible to write about how or what is the procedure to recruit undergrad. students in research projects.
Actually, I am new to the acadamic field and I want to learn from other experince in this area. So can u kindly provide ur readers with a serious of post talking about this issue?

Thank u

post-doc said...

I was quite insecure when I started my summer research as an undergrad. It was my first time living more than 15 minutes from home, I'd never been exposed to research before, and I was terrified of making a mistake.

There was a senior student in the lab who was impatient and awful. I didn't work with him often at all. The PI was wonderful - he'd check in every single day and explain the same concepts over and over. He took the group to lunch every week and we talked as a group every other day. (I know - it was intense. I have no idea where he found time to do that.) He also met me and quickly assigned me to Patrick, who was graduating with a Masters and had the patience of a saint.

I can offer hope by saying that I found tremendous kindess and encouragement in that particular 8 weeks. It absolutely convinced me that I could enter grad school and be moderately successful because eventually I became more self-motivated, got comfortable, wasn't so terribly insecure. So, as always, I love Jane! It's a big deal - offering time and energy you don't really have to spare. Hang in there - it really does make a difference to some of us.

Scooter said...

Would a list of "expectations and responsibilities" be a reasonable solution? Perhaps a guideline (I often talk about a $100 mistake in business, but perhaps in reasearch it's a 2-hour mistake.), which is the point at which they should ask a question if the mistake will cost them that much if wrong.

Anonymous said...

I concur with post-doc, when I was exposed to research two things: the ambiguity and the way my PI talked to me about conducting research. He never had the ability to talk to me at my level but at his.

for that reason, I quit doing research was alos the reason I didn't like to program...but now after three years in the field, I am programming again and maybe because I have matured or maybe along the way I have figured out how to work out things on my own and ask the right questions, it doesn't feel as bad.

So I wish I had a PI like you when I was in school. Someday, I would like to give research a try again.


Jane said...

Iris, that's a great idea. I'll work on a post or two about hiring/selecting undergrad researchers. I write on this topic from time to time, so maybe I'll go back into the archives and post links to some of my favorite posts about working with research students. Thanks for the idea!

post-doc, thanks for the kind words! Your last paragraph explains exactly why I take the time and spend the energy--because I know that it can and does make a huge difference.

Scooter, these students are actually *really* good about coming to me with questions when they don't understand something--which is something that they do much better than any other undergrads that I've worked with. But I do like the idea of the 2-hour mistake--I think I'll start using that. Thanks for the idea!

Kavitha, I find that the toughest part of my job is figuring out how to talk to the undergrads' level of understanding. It's hard when you're so intricately involved in something, and have been working on it for years, to figure out how to explain some of the trickier concepts to "lay" people. It's something that I am getting better at, but it does take practice. I'm glad that you found your way back to programming and I hope you do take a shot at research again!