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Managing undergrad assistants


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I need advice. I'm managing A LOT of undergraduate research assistants. Right now, it's just me, in another 6 months, I'll have a post doc to help me, but for now, I'm on my own and I need some advice.

 

I'm very open to helping others and want to help guide these people to better understand research. I always tell them to come to me if there's something they are particularly interested in. I give plenty of guidance and outlines to the tasks they are to be working on. No complaints about any of this.  MY complaint is that they just come to me for silly things ALL the time. Things like computer issues (which are 99% of the time google-able). They have no sense of problem solving and immediately come to me to fix it for them. Not all my RAs are like this, but a good amount of them are. I don't know how to balance being helpful and not coming off as a jerk. I feel like I can't just be like "don't bother me! figure it out yourself!" without coming off sounding like an ass. I don't want them to be scared to come to me, but this has been driving me nuts! Not to sound presumptuous, but that's the reason we have undergraduate RAs, to help do these tasks, not so I walk them all through it. Granted, I don't expect them to know how to do everything, I train them for the most part, but these things are usually stuff I don't know (I'll have to fiddle around with OR google), which they are just as capable of doing.

 

How can I be tact about this? Is this just part of supervising and I should suck it up? Or should I be promoting more independent thinking/problem solving? It's hard to find the right balance.

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I haven't had the exact same experience as you in that I have not managed a lot of undergraduate researchers in a research setting. However, I have TA'ed some lab/project based courses where my job is to help them get their projects going and analyse the data etc. I have a limited of time I can use to help them and I did get a lot of people asking very easily google-able questions, which became a problem when other students have "legit" questions that actually needed my help. I definitely did not want to spoon-feed/hand-hold/whatever-you-call-it so that they can develop independence on their projects (which was for a course, but the skills are applicable to research too) and know when it is appropriate to ask for help.

 

The way I was able to manage this was to not give direct answers to things that they can figure out on their own. One course I taught was a computer programming course and they had to do a physics-related project using computers (e.g. a simulation). If a student wonders how they can use the "copy" command to copy an entire directory at once instead of a single file at a time, I could tell them to use the "-r" option, or I can attempt to give them skills to help them figure it out themselves. So, I will tell them that linux commands can take options, which usually have a minus sign in front of them. And then I'll tell them that they can usually google a command name, or use the "man" command to get the manual page for the command. Hopefully, if I do this, they will learn to use these skills so later on, when they want to delete an entire directory, they can use the same skills and realise that the "-r" option works for this too! It might take longer at first to show them how to use the manual, but that will prevent a ton of questions later on. In many cases, I will start the explanation with "I'm going to show you how to find these things out in general, so that you can use this for other future problems too" or something so they know to pay attention and that I'm not going to like it if they keep asking me the same thing over and over again.

 

I would never directly say to one of them to "not bother me" or otherwise discourage questions. Instead, I would try to always encourage them to try to find the answers themselves, and just ask them to try things. For some students who were used to TAs just giving them the answer, it takes them a couple of times to realise that I am basically telling them to do the same things each time (e.g. look it up on Google etc.) and then they know that the next issue that comes up, the first thing I would say is to google it. Then, I find that these students will google future problems and only come to me when they don't understand what they are seeing (which is a fair/legit question) and I get a lot fewer questions and can spend my time solving the real/big problems!

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How can I be tact about this? Is this just part of supervising and I should suck it up? Or should I be promoting more independent thinking/problem solving? It's hard to find the right balance.

 

I'd try not answering their questions but instead "brainstorming" together for a solution and have them do the actual work. That is, solve their problem, but not by making the process a black box that just spits out an answer, but as a process that they are involved in, perform themselves, and learn from. It might take longer, at least at first, but they are coming to you because either they are not independent, aren't sure they can do things themselves, or they think that asking you will save them time and effort (=they are being lazy). You want to build their confidence, teach them how to do things, and not let them be lazy -- all of which are accomplished by doing things together and having them come up with suggestions. If they are unsure in the beginning, walk them through your thought process about what you want to search for or fiddle with. Then have them do it, and come back to report what they found. Or, if necessary, have them do it with you watching and guiding them. This is an important part of being a mentor - you want to teach them to become independent. 

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Would this as a response be appropriate: "I'm not sure, perhaps you could google or fiddle around with it and see if you can find a solution?" or "I would probably try to google it or play around with it until you can find a way to solve it."

 

I just don't want to seem flippant.

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I'd probably try leading questions first. "Well, what do you think we should do?" or if they really don't know, "Why don't we try googling it. What would be a good search?" or similarly for fiddling, for which it's harder to make more specific wording suggestions. Turn it into a joint problem that you are working together to solve, but it's still their responsibility to figure it out and implement the solution. You could send them off to play with it on their own if you feel that they have the tools to succeed in it, and then your suggestions are fine. 

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Thanks for the advice! I will definitely try that. It's silly because they are literally things like "How do I open a window in a mac?" or "How come I can't drag this item here?" etc. So they really are not research specific things...otherwise I totally would not mind helping out, because I understand they don't have experience in research and are still learning. But when it's basic computer skills...it can drive you a little crazy, you'd think this generation are tech savvy and know how to use google...at times I've suggested to use google and they're like "What should I google??"...cue *facepalm*

Edited by kaister
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A little bit of flippancy won't hurt them, I don't think (especially not if you otherwise get along well with them). It's mostly in the tone - if you sound more joking than annoyed then they are unlikely to feel hurt. "Google is your friend." or "I think you could find the answer to that yourself using a Google search - come back to me in 10 minutes if you are still struggling."

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It's silly because they are literally things like "How do I open a window in a mac?" or "How come I can't drag this item here?" etc. So they really are not research specific things...otherwise I totally would not mind helping out, because I understand they don't have experience in research and are still learning. But when it's basic computer skills...it can drive you a little crazy, you'd think this generation are tech savvy and know how to use google...at times I've suggested to use google and they're like "What should I google??"...cue *facepalm*

 

Well in that case it sounds like they are just lazy and are asking you to enable it. Don't! Have them find the answer themselves, if it's not anything they really need your help with. As St Andrews Lynx says, here you could definitely send them away: "that sounds like something that you can find out by yourself on google -- come back to me in 10 minutes if you are still struggling."

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If you keep getting the same computer-based questions from students, I would suggest that they go to campus IT for a computer course or basic help session - most university IT departments do that.  But "what should I Google?"  That's just the epitome of laziness.  I don't think you'll hurt their feelings too bad by telling them to figure out that part by themselves.  And if you do, their feelings are too delicate anyway.

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