Communicating Your expectations to Undergraduate Researchers…or “How to tell undergrads that research is demanding, without scaring them away”

The semester is about to begin, and my undergrads will soon be back in the classroom and back in the lab for another year. It’s an exciting time of year. All that potential energy!

I run a biochemistry research lab of 4-6 students at a Primarily Undergrduate Institution (PUI) that is really an exclusively undergraduate institution. There are no post-docs, PhD students or masters students to set the tone in the research lab. The undergrads create and sustain the research culture all on their own.

Muhlenberg College: 2015 Summer Research (Collection) &emdash; JacquiHamati_Elly Kim_AlyssaWiest-2615

I want to keep my students excited and motivated to do research, but I also want them to adopt the habits that give them the best chance of experiencing success in the lab. And anyone who has done research in chemistry knows, sometimes the experiment has to take precedence if you are going to get the result you want. In a perfect world, I could set this example for my students myself – demonstrating the work schedule and ethic I expect. But let’s be realistic. Between faculty meetings, grading papers, and picking up my kids from school…that isn’t happening.

What is my strategy? I use a “contract” style document that lays out a sort-of “best practices” for research students in a friendly and approachable tone. I have students read and sign this “contract” every semester. This serves to keep the “best practices” up front and visible. Students understand what I expect, and what will translate into the most success.

Here are my Best Practices for Research Students. Perhaps something like this will work for your lab this semester:

The independent study/research student guidelines

As an independent study student in the Colabroy lab you must read these guidelines and sign the contract that follows EVERY SEMESTER that you are registered for research. Please submit your signed copy to Dr. Colabroy no later than the SECOND FRIDAY of the semester.

Being an independent research student is a privilege, and yet it comes with its own set of challenges and responsibilities. You are independent – and by that very nature, you are inherently more responsible for your learning and your environment. How you rise to this challenge determines how well you will perform in this environment, and in this course. Here are some guidelines that exemplify the IDEAL independent study student. I do not expect you to be this ideal student all at once. But I do expect you to make measurable progress toward the goal…

  1. Independent research students take responsibility

What does this look like? An independent research student takes responsibility for setting up AND cleaning up their experiments. When the advisor asks the student to do something, they complete that task or request at the earliest possible time. Independent study students do not need reminder emails, cajoling, coercing or the like to motivate action. Independent study students do not need deadlines set for them by a faculty member, rather they are self-motivated. In the event a deadline is agreed upon by the student and faculty member, the independent study student is sure to meet the deadline.

An independent research student takes responsibility for their data. Your data are unique, and in that sense they are sacred. If you do not take responsibility for your data – then no one else can, and no one else will. Independent study students keep scrupulously well ordered notebooks because they understand that they are part of a much bigger project. They enter ALL the data into their notebooks, they describe and annotate. They understand that conclusions can be drawn months after data are collected – and that in collecting that data they must be brutally honest and fastidiously clear – about the conditions, the assumptions, the context. They understand that the data are serving a larger, much bigger purpose and that faculty are not simply being ornery about good notebooks. Labs like ours can’t survive without them. They recognize that they are still learning and their assumptions are naive. Students do not get to decide if data are important or not. All data are important. Furthermore, when an independent study student recognizes a flaw, inconsistency or problem with the data or its record – they take responsibility and rectify it immediately – they do not need reminders to act.

Muhlenberg College: 2015 Summer Research (Collection) &emdash; AbbyLazofsky-3231

2. Independent research students are respectful

…Of students and faculty alike. When you make an appointment, you keep it.  When you commit to an experiment, follow through. When you mess something up, you clean it – immediately – there are no exceptions. It is not fair to lab mates, work study students, or faculty to have to clean up your mess in order to use a piece of glassware etc. The message you send by leaving a mess or by missing an appointment is “My time is more important than everybody else’s time.” This may not be the message you intend to send, but this type of behavior will make you the kind of person no one wants to work with.

3. Independent research students have a different set of priorities

Not everyone is an independent research student, and not everyone should be. Independent research students are self-motivated enough to seek out a research project and propel that project on their own. They are dedicated enough to set aside time in addition to regular coursework, and they are excited enough that the time invested is worth it. When independent study students become honors candidates, they spend more time on their projects than just about everything else. Does this mean you cannot have outside interests, friends, obligations? Certainly not. But every time you prioritize some other “activity” over your research – you make it harder and harder to do that work and do it well. Often this means making difficult choices between research and something else. So…not everyone is cut out for long term independent research or honors.

Muhlenberg College: 2015 Summer Research (Collection) &emdash; AksharaKartik_KimLightfoot_KatieSkwirut-2477

4. Independent research students are always thinking

This means that in addition to setting up, conducting and interpreting experiments, an independent research student actually thinks independently of the faculty member. The independent research student thinks about data as it’s collected. They look for patterns, trends, anomalies and make note of them. They make hypotheses and test them.  An independent study student never simply follows a list of instructions mindlessly. Not only will that philosophy result in mistakes, but discoveries will go unnoticed. They know why they do what they do, and they run their experiments with the expectation of a conclusion. Independent research students are not afraid to ask for help, but they only do so after they have thought about the problem for a little bit. Studying independently is both the doing and the thinking….come to think of it, so is science.

~ Dr. Keri Colabroy is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Muhlenberg College. She has mentored over 25 research students.

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