Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Undergraduate researchers and time

Although I've supervised many undergraduate researchers over the summer, both at ProdigalU last year and at National Lab before that, this semester is the first time I have a student doing research for credit during the academic year. My undergrad seems sharp, and has a good class schedule for research, but I don't see this person in lab much. The project has only been running for a month, and there was an initial report due, which required lots of background reading. I have to admit, though, that right now I am a bit underwhelmed by the commitment level of the student.

I realize that this particular student will require a whole lot more oversight than my summer students, especially since many of my summer students came in every day vs a few times a week due to their class schedules (and lack thereof). This is something I don't want to put on the grad student who is supervising the day-to-day lab stuff. So I clearly need to bring my undergrad in for a chat about expectations, but since the "official" time alloted for student research is only 10 hours per week (curse the credit system!), I am thinking hard about how to approach it.

Ideally, I want the student to be able to complete a (small) project during their time in the lab, which is what I have done in the past with my summer students. I just don't think it will happen with 10 hours a week. So, do I start using the student as a technician in support of my grad students rather than a "researcher"? Do I keep the student on the current project knowing that decent progress is unlikely with this time commitment? Do I change the project to something more amenable to 10 hour per week bites, even though I think it will be a worse overall experience for everyone involved (including the supervising grad student, who is getting a chance to mentor someone with supervision)? I do plan to explain all of this, and then make a decision based on the student response. Any other suggestions?


Hope said...

Yes, by all means have a conversation with your student about expectations – yours and hers (or his).

I am curious, though, if the official time commitment is 10 hrs/wk, why you expect(ed) more. Is it unofficially known that doing research for credit during the year is actually a much bigger commitment?

prodigal academic said...

It wasn't so much that I expected more--I expected the student to understand that 10 hours is an average and that some weeks it might be more with others correspondingly less. I talked about this when we first met, but I am not sure it registered completely.

The other issue is that the student should be averaging 10 hours a week in the lab, and spending additional time outside the lab on the project on top of that. This is where I think the miscommunication is--the total time spent on the "course" is more than 10 hours a week, but I think the student is assuming 10 hours a week total based on observed behavior. This is understood for more structured lab courses, where the students do prelabs and lab reports at home on top of their in class lab time. I have a lot less control over outside work in a research course, and the amount of this work time required is highly variable by the project.

The long and the short of it is that if my student does not do more (total) work, I need to change the project to make sure they have enough data to write a final report at the end.

Jean Grey said...

I have mixed feelings about undergrads. I have worked with the whole range from really-truly-amazing-easily-as-good-as-the-best-grad-student to god-awful-terrible-please-don't-come-to-work-anymore. Some have first author papers and some couldn't tell their ass from a hole in the ground. (Please pardon the imagery.)

In my experience it really depends on the individual student: the not so good ones are the techs and the good ones are able to carry out independent research and write pretty good (albeit short) theses. Which type of student do you think you have (or maybe you don't know yet)?

As for actually having the conversation...I usually explain to people that grad school is like one giant lab experiment that takes five years to complete and requires a 150 page lab report. Sounds like a similar analogy might click with your undergrad. Then you could explain that you are having the conversation in his/her best interests, because as the advisor you want to see the student succeed and X, Y, and Z are requisites for success.

Also in terms of time commitment, what I find useful is to have the undergrad in the lab for several hour chunks. Some of them want to squeeze in forty five minutes here and there between classes, but this is never enough time to get anything done. I suggest that they come in two or three days at a week for five or four hours at a time. If their schedule permits this, it usually works out pretty well. I also have them fill out a block schedule indicating the times they will devote to lab work. This makes it seem more like a class so they are more likely to actually show up (in my experience). I also make it clear that they should plan to show up to these committed times, regardless of tests, parties, movies on the lawn, etc., and that they email me if they are unable to make it for some reason. It's a lot like babysitting, but holding them accountable seems to work.

GMP said...

I second what Jean Grey said about having the student give you a schedule.

I have had a number of undergrads over the summer and it worked great. However, my experience with undergrads during the academic year has not been very good. I think only with a really, really driven undergrad who happens to have a somewhat lighter than usual course load that semester, can you pull it off. Undergrads just get busy with classes and tend to blow off research as it does not produce a grade, so it's on the back burner while all the homework, labs, and exams take precedent.

In my experience it is very, very rare that an undergrad is so motivated that he/she will spend all the (little) free time he/she has on the project, which is essentially what needs to happen with a serious project. Of course, you should talk to the student, as Hope says, to clarify what everyone's expectations are, but my guess is that you would need to make the project considerably simpler/less time consuming if you want it done.

Insomniac Lab Rat said...

I'm a second year grad student, so it wasn't all that long ago that I was an undergraduate researcher...

Like others have mentioned, knowing expectations is really important. I think it's important for you to know what the student wants to get out of this- is (s)he planning on grad school/continuing research, or just fulfilling a requirement?

If the student is planning on continuing research in some capacity, I think assigning a small project would be beneficial to the student, and you may just have to review your time expectations. I know it helped me in grad school interviews to have a real project to talk about (of course I was in the lab for 4 years, so that helped too), and it definitely gave me a better idea of what to expect in grad school.

If the student is just fulfilling a requirement, (s)he might be happier acting in more of a tech position. You could still assign background reading/progress reports/etc., but a student that doesn't really care about research might do better just showing up at set times and performing tasks. (S)he can still learn new lab techniques, and learn enough about the project to write a report that includes the data from a grad student, but a less independent role might be better.

I don't know if there are any specific requirements set by the school or program. I just know that I gained a lot from being a more independent undergrad researcher, but I've also seen the effects of an undergrad who doesn't care...and it might be better for everyone if that type of undergrad just sticks to simple, assigned tasks.

Good Luck!

prodigal academic said...

Thanks for all of the comments. I really appreciate your practical advice, Jean Grey and the benefit of your experience, GMP. Thanks for delurking Insomniac--it is helpful to have the perspective of a recent undergrad. It is hard not to measure my students vs. myself, but I know that is a mistake (given that I ended up on the TT unlike 99+% of the people who major in my field!)

I am meeting with my student tomorrow, and I will definitely ask to set up scheduled times when the student will be in the lab. I hadn't thought of that, and it is a great idea.

We are going to discuss in more detail what the student would like to get out of the experience, now that the work has started (and it is more clear to the student what research will be like).

This has been a bit of an experiment for me as well to see if I will continue taking students during the academic year, or if I will stick to summer research only. I am going to wait and see how things go. My student was in the lab quite a bit this week, and made some forward progress on their project, so we will be meeting on a good note!

Anonymous said...

I found that it was often harder to get serious commitments from "top" undergrads. They spend more time studying, are involved with extracurriculars, and have less time and focus left over for the lab. I've had good experiences with students who have held part time jobs, who know how to manage their time.

Anonymous said...

Depends on what kind of research you do and whether the student is going to continue after this semester/term. During my undergrad research I started in the summer, so my advisor had an easier time during the school year with supervising in that she didnt' have to watch over my shoulder for every simplist things. But we stopped following the official 10 hr/wk like 3 weeks into the summer. There was rarely a week during the school year when I wasn't spending 4-5 hours in lab everyday, including the weekends. It's silly to think that research can be alotted into number of hours. And we all overworked even though not all of us went on to grad school.