Friday, March 16, 2018

Managing the Undergrads

Let's hear it for the hardest working people in academia, our undergraduates! As a fun follow-on to Casey's previous post about the lab food chain, this week Elisabeth discusses the work that she has done with several undergraduates who volunteer with us at PVL to gain valuable experience and perhaps to prepare for future careers in research! From left to right, Alexandra Innanen, Abteen Sanaee, Romina Bahrami and Derek Hayden.

by Elisabeth Smith

Now that I’m in my final term of my Master’s degree, I am a very busy woman – I’m currently doing an astronomy research project for course credit, writing my thesis, and even starting to look around at employment opportunities. However, I still had a few experiments to conduct so I was able to recruit my very own mini-army of undergraduate assistants to help me out. 

Having an undergraduate assistant (or multiple, in my case) is very beneficial for both parties involved. As the graduate student, having an assistant to help perform experiments frees my time to focus on my thesis and other things necessary for the completion of my degree. For the undergraduate student, they gain valuable experience doing hands-on work – something that will doubtless be a boon to their future careers, whether that’s in industry or academia or anything else.

I remember when I was a first-year undergraduate, I received a work-study assignment working with an aquatic biology lab, which was looking at organism growth in the Hudson River. My tasks were fairly simple – put a sample under a microscope, look for anything of interest (tiny worms were very common), and take a picture of it. I would also be responsible for logging that information into an Excel database. But even though the work was not very complicated, it still showed employers that I was willing and able to do a variety of tasks, whether they were more hands-on in computer based. Just that simple first-year research impressed my employer for my internship that summer – I was told as much during our phone interview!

Of course, it is very important to remember that the undergraduate’s course work comes first. They are always students, first and foremost, and they should be expected to put their own homework and studies ahead of anything else, including my own research. Sometimes that means you have to work around their schedule – perhaps you might need to come in a little earlier or stay a little later one day to give them access to the lab and help them set up. Mitigating that issue was easily done with a spreadsheet: I simply asked them to fill in days and times they would be available to help, and I would try and make sure I was available for that time.

My undergraduates don’t need too much supervision, however – after showing them once or twice how to run the experiment, they are able to run it on their own. If they come in a little later in the day, I’ll stick around long enough to help them get set up (mostly just to help them get the set-up finished sooner, as that process can be a little time consuming) and choose which particle type and laser color I want done for that experiment. Once they get the experiment going, I don’t need to worry about them too much and can leave them to finish it on their own if necessary.

Learning to manage and supervise this small team has been a great experience for me as well. Such skills are highly valuable to employers but learning to be a team leader is a reward in and of itself. It helps you to develop many personal skills that are helpful both in and out of the workplace. Communication skills are certainly developed – working with the undergraduates requires me to be able to clearly communicate how the experiment is done and its significance in the realm of science. Time management skills are also gained from this experience. Since my undergraduate assistants could be in as early as 10 AM or as late as 5 PM, I need to be able to manage my day accordingly so that I can be there at that time to offer any assistance and answer any questions. 

Interpersonal skills are also quite valuable, and definitely learned as a team leader. Being a team leader requires patience. There is often a learning curve associated with learning any new task. As such, undergraduates (or anyone working for or with you) may have lots of questions. You should always be patient answering these questions – if you want them to do the task well, they should feel comfortable to ask you for further clarification of a task or to ask for assistance. In fact, you should encourage them to come to you! In that same grain, however, you don’t want to be overbearing. Offer advice and assistance when needed and check in on their work every now and then, but you don’t want to hover over them and oversee every little detail of their work. They might have different methods for doing small things than you, and that’s okay, as long as the overall experiment is done correctly. As a leader, your job is just to enable them to complete their task, not do it for them.

I will very soon be finishing with the last of my experiments and will be going full-sprint into the end of my degree. To all of my undergraduate assistants, thank you very much for your help!

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