Monday, May 24, 2010

Motivating students

One thing I have been trying hard to do is to establish a nice lab culture. I have two students, and hope to get two more next year. I am really fortunate that both of my students are really hard workers who are very enthusiastic about their work. I don't want to be a slave driver--I want to have nice discussions of science, going over experiments, and not spend a lot of time laying down the law. I always hated being micromanaged, so I don't want to do that myself. I am thinking about what I should be doing to establish a self-sustaining lab culture that encourages those things.

In terms of motivation, I was always pretty intrinsically motivated. One thing I lacked as a student was the opportunity to go to meetings--I pretty much had to arrange everything myself (even funding for it). So as a motivator, and because I think meetings can be great experiences, when my students joined my group, I told them that I would take them to a meeting every year they had enough new data to present, and to a major meeting after they published a significant paper of their own work. This summer, I will be taking both of my students to a regional meeting to present posters of their work. I am pretty excited about this, and so are they. Any other suggestions of nice things to do to reward productivity?


geekmommyprof said...


I think it is wonderful you are rewarding your students by taking them to a conference. And I apologize in advance if any of the comment is going to sound patronizing:

In my opinion, if the students have not done a significant chunk of work they feel they own, they may not appreciate going as much as you'd like them to (similar to how one appreciates a gift of money less than money earned). I took a student to a conference like that, the conference that was supposed to be motivational but it really did nothing...

I have found, to my disappoinment, that most students are not self-starters. You will be surprised how many actually crave being micromanaged. The self-starters are comparatively rare. There are a number of different things that motivate students, and depending on how good the school is, for many the motivator are things beyond science. You will have to play psychologist...

One of the important lessons I learned early on tenure track is to not expect all the students to be like me (or like you in this case), motivated self-starters; people like that become faculty, and we know most won't and don't even wnat to.

But I digress: you asked how to reward them -- I suppose you can give them a boost in their research assistantship (like a bonus), that will cheer them up.

If I may play smart-ass a bit more: try not to fraternize with students too much. I did that initially and that bit me on the butt -- I started being friendly and approachable and realized I have trouble enforcing rules and getting them to listen to me regarding the project. A bit of distance won't hurt.

But first and foremost congrats on your 2 students doing so well!

prodigal academic said...

Thanks for the comments--I appreciate the thoughts and suggestions. Sometimes, it is hard to talk about this stuff with people who actually know the students involved, if you know what I mean.

GMP (GeekMommyProf) said...

I hear ya.

It was not long ago that I was recruiting my first couple of students...

I was totally clueless; one was a total flake, the other I let go after a Master's. However, my No 3 was freakin' awesome, and was the first student I graduated; went to a national lab actually! :) I think that 1st graduated student has a special place among one's intellectual offspring... Looks like your two are keepers.

Anonymous said...

It's funny -- I have actually been feeling underprivileged, as my advisor doesn't pay for food while at conferences, whereas many of my friends' advisors do. I typically go to (and present at) 3-5 conferences per year. It's clear that the culture varies a great deal from field to field. In mine, between 1/3 to 2/3 of the talks at any given conference are graduate students.

What are you trying to motivate your students to do? Publishing and landing a job isn't motivation enough?

prodigal academic said...

Anon, it is awesome that you have the opportunity to go to so many meetings. I know some PIs who don't go to 5 meetings a year!

In my field, it is a little less common to send students to so many meetings. They of course do a bunch of local stuff (typically student poster sessions at local meetings), but I want them to be able to meet people who do research more directly related to their own work.

In terms of motivating students, what I want is for them to work hard and think hard about their projects, rather than coasting along and waiting to be told what to do. Even in myself (and I was pretty self-motivated, given that I ended up in a TT position), I had dead periods where I just flailed about. My goal is to minimize those dead periods and keep my students excited about science, even when things in the lab may not be producing publishable data at the time.