In my shoes: Managing the summer student influx in the laboratory #academia

As a post-doc, I don’t really have any of the administrative responsibilities that my mentors and colleagues that are PIs have. In general, my responsibilities include: 1) showing up for work; 2) completing project(s) sponsored by my PI’s grants (who, at least originally, was paying my stipend); and 3) publish, publish, publish. Occasionally, a post-doc is privileged with having their own funding and, potentially, more flexibility on what projects to pursue, but the end game is still: Get work done + Get it peer reviewed and published = successful.

This equation doesn’t always include the denominator of advising or mentoring other trainees. But, I’d be lying if I said that we can do it all by ourselves- or that we should even try. We need to ask ourselves: Why are we here? What is it we want from this profession? At it’s most basic level, our job as academics is to educate, whether that means educating students in the classroom, educating our peers on our research findings, or educating the public in outreach, policy, and open discourse. We are responsible for making improvements, especially intellectually. One of the ways post-docs can educate others is in the lab, with undergraduates or graduate students, with adequate training, time, research, and reinforcement of the scientific method. Think of it as a sort of “good for the realm” type approach (if you catch my Game of Thronesian reference there). What you put in, you hope to get out, and you want the next generation to be as good or better than you.

Plus, delegating responsibilities, and asking for help, can help kick-start new projects or just help knock down the mountains of work you have to do (so, it’s not a totally selfless thing after all). Assuming the help is reliable, you can certainly make great headway in your own independent approach to research- apart from your advisor- which makes getting a job after postdoctopia slightly more likely. Hello, senior author-dom!

So, the purpose of this post -which will be the first of many this summer- is to help guide young mentors (like myself) when the influx of eager and, likely, somewhat under-experienced help that has entered blazingly into the laboratory for the next few months.

Here’s a few tips that can help establish a training infrastructure for the albeit short and intense summer research session currently underway:

1. Set up regular training workshops.

When there’s one or two mentees fluttering about the laboratory, it’s usually feasible to provide one-on-one training/shadowing. That being said, there are a lot of things that newbie mentees don’t inherently know about work in the lab. And, if you have three or four trainees, you might want to gouge your eyes out after repeating that it is not ok to wear sandals in the wet lab for the seventh or eighth time. So, this summer, I started a bi-weekly training course for undergraduates and new graduate students to guide them, as a group, into what more senior academes might consider basic research know-hows. The training sessions include:

a) How to be a good lab-mate — in other words, how to keep a good notebook so that someone else can read what you spent your summer doing and repeat it, if necessary (and, it will probably be necessary). This session also includes basic lab safety stuff, like the aforementioned sandals rule and food/drink in lab, plus where you can get stuff if you need it (i.e., Where can I buy DMEM? Where can I park my bike?)

b) The literature review and managing citations — because writing for research is an entirely different animal than writing for rhetoric. This session includes a basic how-to-read-a-peer-reviewed-article, how to find said paper (i.e., picking the right key words for your research), and gives advice on how to manage references. Specifically, what are reference managers (like Mendeley and Endnote) and how can they make your life easier? This is also a brief intro to reading peer reviewed papers without stabbing your eyes out. Start with the title, abstract, and figures. If it warrants your attention, delve deeper. Know what criteria to set for triage of papers.

c) Academic writing and publishing — There comes a time when all the work you are doing is coming to an end, and you need to share what you’ve done with the general public. Or, at least, your mentor. Academic writing is a lot different than writing for, say, English composition. Write brief, concise, and clear. Make outlines first, and expand. Each word you use must have value; there’s not any room for “fluff” or filler.

d) Presenting your research to your peers — One of the most challenging things I still deal with as an academic is presenting in front of my peers. There’s just something so nerve-wrecking about it. You’d think that I train for running so that I don’t have a heart attack while presenting, because my heart-rate gets up to 170bpm before I stand behind the podium. I am not joking. Now, I’m not saying this to make all my mentees nervous; far from it. I think I would have been better served had I had more opportunities to present in front of people, had I been put on the stage, so to speak, repeatedly and often. This training workshop is probably the most beneficial of all the sessions, because whether or not your mentee(s) go on into academia, being able to present and discuss with others your aims and accomplishments is an incredibly important, and often under-trained, skill. In this session, students learn a few tips, but are also responsible for sharing, in five minutes or less, their summer research to an audience of their peers.

2. Make task lists and stay up-to-date with your mentee’s accomplishments.

It’s hard to make time, especially as a trainee yourself, for someone else’s training. But it’s crucial and it’s what we are here to do. By assigning my mentees’ to completing weekly “to-do” lists, as well as “accomplishments” lists, I am able to get feedback from them as well as give feedback to where they should be spending more or less of their time.

3. Be a reliable mentor.

Your mentee isn’t there to provide you with free labor. In return for good data, you need to provide good mentorship. That means being a reliable mentor.  Whether it’s simply showing up on time or being thorough in training your mentee a new technique, it is imperative that they are getting the most they can from your relationship. You are an educator, after all. Be accessible by email, by phone, by Google-Hangout. Don’t let them get lost in a pile of papers. Check in regularly with your mentees to make sure they’re questions are answered, and encourage them to ask questions. As a great mentor and friend of mine said at happy hour on Friday: “When you’re younger, the smart kids don’t ask questions. As you get older, the smart kids are the ones always asking questions.” 

Any other tips or tricks for dealing with facilitating productivity of summer students in the lab?


2 thoughts on “In my shoes: Managing the summer student influx in the laboratory #academia

  1. These all look like great ideas! From my experience having a structured set up is really helpful. I was in a fairly unstructured lab as an undergraduate research assistant and although I got a lot of excellent data collection/technical experience I missed out on learning some of the fundamentals of literature review, writing in scientific style, etc. The lab didn’t have a specific training set-up (e.g. lab manager would send me off to do a lit search & write up a brief review but I wouldn’t really get much/any critical feedback) and I didn’t know enough to realize what questions I should be asking. I really wish now that I’d gotten more formal instruction on things like reading research articles, presenting, and writing prior to graduate school.

    • Thanks, Carly! That’s sort of how I feel, too. And, even if your experiences are that you’ve been in well-structured labs, it’s still beneficial to participate and contribute to more formal instruction, because you’ll never know what you will learn (or remember!).

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