Jump to content

Needy Undergraduate RAs


Recommended Posts

I assume this is a question with an answer that's obvious to all of my lab-based colleagues, but as a poor historian, I'm stumped.

I have day-to-day management responsibilities for a large project, which mainly involves wrangling the undergraduates who do the majority of our gruntwork. The work is usually hands-off, function at your own pace, so my job's pretty easy. If students have technical questions, I answer them or bump them up the chain, but they're usually self-sufficient. 

We just got a new student, and he's proving a bit of a handful. He says he wants to go on to graduate work, but he can't even accomplish relatively simple tasks without a lot of handholding. If, for example, I say, "look this up in book XYZ", the question comes back, "how do I find XYZ". Well, you look it up in the library catalog, of course. I've tried some gentle approaches ("Well, what do you need to know to solve this problem") and had several in-person meetings, but there's no real change.

Do you all have any strategies to cut the umbilical without coming off as a raging asshole? Is the answer different if you're talking to a freshman or a senior?

Edited by telkanuru
Link to post
Share on other sites

The answer is definitely different, at least for me, based on the level of the student. I mean, I don't expect the sophomores I teach to fully understand how to use the library's resources so, I take them to the library and we have a session with a librarian. Have you thought about arranging a meeting between this pesky RA and one of the librarians to get them up to speed?

In general though, I find that students who need a lot of handholding either don't last as RAs or they end up only ever doing basic tasks.

Link to post
Share on other sites

The answer is definitely different based on the ability level and experience level of the student. I also have a slightly different mindset, where I see the primary reason of hiring and mentoring undergraduate RAs is service work, rather than to get useful labour/work out of the RA. So, to me, mentoring an undergraduate RA is an exercise in teaching and mentoring. But of course, this has to be balanced with all of the other things I have to do too! 

I try to figure out the main reason the undergraduate student is asking for all of this help. Is it because they truly do not know? Or is it because they have become dependent on me (or others) to get stuff done? The former is okay---I'm happy to explain and re-explain things as necessary. But the latter is a problem that needs fixing!

My general strategy is to first do every "new" task at least once with the student. For example, looking up papers in my field is best done using a specific database search engine and there are some tricks to help you get to the paper. I do this once with my student (I direct my student, the student types and clicks required buttons) and then the next time I suggest they look up a paper, I ask them to do it without me guiding them (but I'm still there to help if necessary). After that, I assume that they can do this by themselves unless they ask for help again. If they do, I always do help them. If they ask me for help, I always ask to see them do it first. If I notice that they are asking the same things over and over then I would suggest things like writing down the steps in their research notebook etc. or train them in other useful scientist skills. In doing this, I think that I do avoid students asking for help just because it's easier and try to make their question into a learning experience in one research skill or another.

Link to post
Share on other sites

The answer is definitely different based on the ability level and experience level of the student. I also have a slightly different mindset, where I see the primary reason of hiring and mentoring undergraduate RAs is service work, rather than to get useful labour/work out of the RA. So, to me, mentoring an undergraduate RA is an exercise in teaching and mentoring. But of course, this has to be balanced with all of the other things I have to do too! 

I think that this might be an important difference between fields. In my area, undergraduate RAs are there to help you get research done. In my current position, supervising undergrad RAs doesn't count as service work, even though it is expected that we all do this. Consequently, I am selective about whom I hire because I know it's going to require extra work on my part with potentially no real payoff if they don't see the project through to completion (so data collection and analysis, maybe even helping with write-up for publication). If your undergrad RAs are supposed to help you actually get research done, rather than being there for you to teach and mentor, then you have to find a way to either make them more independent or to cut them loose politely. 

Link to post
Share on other sites

I think that this might be an important difference between fields. In my area, undergraduate RAs are there to help you get research done. In my current position, supervising undergrad RAs doesn't count as service work, even though it is expected that we all do this. Consequently, I am selective about whom I hire because I know it's going to require extra work on my part with potentially no real payoff if they don't see the project through to completion (so data collection and analysis, maybe even helping with write-up for publication). If your undergrad RAs are supposed to help you actually get research done, rather than being there for you to teach and mentor, then you have to find a way to either make them more independent or to cut them loose politely. 

I want to just emphasize that while I (and many others) view training undergraduates as service, it's certainly not like this all around. (Maybe I didn't make that part clear enough!). At my current school, there is a fund specifically made to pay for undergraduate researchers so that they can gain experience. In Canada, the equivalent of the NSF also awards money to professors to subsidize undergraduate research for the same reason. But there are definitely also research positions in the sciences that are also like what you say here. Especially as budgets shrink and departments are rewarded for activities that bring in money (e.g. lower level survey classes). But many faculty members are also arguing for the importance of valuing research mentoring too!

Link to post
Share on other sites

I think that this might be an important difference between fields. In my area, undergraduate RAs are there to help you get research done. In my current position, supervising undergrad RAs doesn't count as service work, even though it is expected that we all do this. Consequently, I am selective about whom I hire because I know it's going to require extra work on my part with potentially no real payoff if they don't see the project through to completion (so data collection and analysis, maybe even helping with write-up for publication). If your undergrad RAs are supposed to help you actually get research done, rather than being there for you to teach and mentor, then you have to find a way to either make them more independent or to cut them loose politely. 

I do agree that this is largely field specific. While not everyone agrees, in most bench sciences it's pretty well understood that taking on an undergraduate increases the amount of work for a graduate student, rather than decreasing it. Similarly, they are rarely simply there to help the graduate student- they usually end up with their own research project that must be supervised and managed by the graduate student/faculty member they're working for.

That said, I think the difficulty you're describing is universal- even if the reason I'm working with the undergraduate is to help them grow, at some point they need to be cut off from having to run every little thing they need to do by me, and they need to learn how to look up basic information themselves. 

One strategy that I've found helpful is to set the rule in place that they need to try to figure something out on their own first- and then they can explain to me what they tried, and what problems they're having. It means I can critique their process and help them modify it for the future, rather than giving them a protocol to follow. 

The other strategy, that is less for the students growth and more for ensuring good results.... Is to learn how to write very detailed procedures and protocols. I have such written up for every piece of equipment in our lab, as well as a number of data analysis protocols. They're step-by-step, such that it's almost impossible for someone to not be able to follow them.

I would probably default to the latter approach for a freshman, and the former approach for a senior, with some transition time between them. 

I usually also have the benefit of long-term relationships with my undergraduate RAs- they start in the freshman year, and I get to keep them until they graduate, usually. So I can walk them through from not knowing anything to being independent. 

Link to post
Share on other sites

Is there another competent undergrad RA that you could buddy up with needy RA? It might help this new RA get out of the habit of relying on the senior grad student "Voice of Authority" for detailed instructions, and instead learn the ropes through a more equal peer-to-peer relationship. TakeruK's strategies are good ones to follow. 

I've seen a lot of undergrads seem to lack confidence when it comes to research - they're reliant on professors telling them exactly what to do at every step. Maybe some you got this one kid! pep talk would encourage them, rather than berating them about their lack of independence. In lab sciences you don't want undergrads doing everything by themselves first in case they spill a hazardous reagent on the floor or break an expensive piece of equipment...but I reckon in the humanities you don't need to worry about that kind of stuff so much. ;)

 

Link to post
Share on other sites

In lab sciences you don't want undergrads doing everything by themselves first in case they spill a hazardous reagent on the floor or break an expensive piece of equipment...but I reckon in the humanities you don't need to worry about that kind of stuff so much. ;)

I mean, yes and no. I do a lot of human subjects research so an undergrad could potentially breach confidentiality or disclose individually identifying information which should be kept confidential. I work with sensitive information all the time, some of which could result in social, cultural, or legal repercussions if it were to be released by anyone, including a careless undergrad. So no, I don't want undergrads doing everything by themselves at first but, I also do care quite a bit about their training even though no expensive equipment would be broken. 

That said, I probably should've added that my perspective on working with undergrad RAs comes primarily from working with them as a faculty member, rather than as a graduate student. Everyone knows that taking on undergrads for research is a lot of work but, at the same time, we are all expected to do it as part of our teaching (even though it's not a course) and research. If we aren't working with undergrad RAs, we get dinged during our reviews.

Link to post
Share on other sites
  • 2 weeks later...

I think that this might be an important difference between fields. In my area, undergraduate RAs are there to help you get research done. In my current position, supervising undergrad RAs doesn't count as service work, even though it is expected that we all do this. Consequently, I am selective about whom I hire because I know it's going to require extra work on my part with potentially no real payoff if they don't see the project through to completion (so data collection and analysis, maybe even helping with write-up for publication). If your undergrad RAs are supposed to help you actually get research done, rather than being there for you to teach and mentor, then you have to find a way to either make them more independent or to cut them loose politely. 

Agreed. I have a lot more tolerance for training and handholding when the student is (a) volunteering or (b) working for course credit. If I'm not paying them they should learn something. If I'm paying them from my grant.... well of course there's a learning curve for new people, but the ultimate reason I pay an RA is to take things off my plate, not add to my workload.

Edited by lewin
Link to post
Share on other sites
  • 2 years later...
On 10/5/2015 at 2:54 PM, telkanuru said:

Hmmm, ok. I think I can apply some of this - other bits maybe not, as I am (of course) holding back some details.

 

Thanks, all!

I missed this thread the first time around. How did it turn out?

Link to post
Share on other sites

I took over management of technical operations and left dealing with the undergraduates to another colleague ?

In my teaching, a lot of this has proven helpful, although some have expressed a frustration at the lack of a direct answer. 

Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
×
×
  • Create New...

Important Information

By using this site, you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.