Mentoring Research Assistants: Setting Yourself and Your Students Up for Success
Updated: Jul 22, 2020
July 20, 2020 By Destenie Nock
The most common complaint about mentoring I hear is that it takes a lot of time. During my PhD I worked with 7 undergraduate research assistants, and since then I have worked with 17 researchers across the undergraduate, MS, and PhD levels. If you are interested in working with research assistants at the PhD, MS, or undergraduate level these are my tips for setting yourself and your students up for success.
To date I have worked on research projects with 13 undergrads (7 were before I finished my PhD), 5 MS, and 6 PhD. That is 24 research assistants all before officially starting as an Assistant Professor. When you say the number out loud it really sounds like a lot of people!
Why Should you Consider being a Mentor to Summer Interns?
The most common complaint that I hear is that being a mentor takes a lot of time. There is no denying that. It takes time to train people how to use the software, analyze data, and if you are lucky, make a poster or write a paper. However, if you think about it everything takes a lot of time if you let it. The main issue is not that we have to devote time to mentoring, but that there are other things that take priority in our schedules. So the questions becomes why should you divert time away from other pressing matters towards training the next generation of engineers, scientists, and researchers?
Question for you: If you are a recruiter how important is prior work experience when you are looking to hire someone? If you are a person that has to recruit PhD students do you look at previous research experience to gauge if someone is likely to be successful in your program? Do you think prior work experience is necessary for someone to get a good job?
The truth is that anyone in a hiring position hopes that the person they hire will be successful. A part of being successful in a career is on the job training to help you understand how things you learned in the classroom translate to the free flowing nature of work in the "real world." If no one invested the time in being the first one to train the next generation of engineers, and no one wanted to hire people without work experience, then employment in the STEM world would halt to a standstill.
If the logic does not appeal to you, then let me touch on the empathy side. I like mentoring because
It feels good to help someone get to where they want to be in their career.
Every time I mentor someone I learn something new. - The people I work with are all very smart. Some know a lot about coding, others are strong in math. There are some people that come to my research team that think they don't have much to offer. This is a myth because everyone can bring something to the table. They don't realize that every question they ask leads both of us to become better researchers.
This is something I found to be really helpful as an undergraduate student.
Through undergraduate research internships at Brookhaven National Lab, Iowa State, and North Carolina A&T State University I was able to discover my passion as a researcher in electricity systems. This ultimately led me to determine that graduate school was the best path for having impact on the world. Then during my MS degree in Northern Ireland I was able to complete 3 internships, which helped me learn about energy policy and sustainability, knowledge which I still use to this day.
Let's assume that now I have intrigued you and you want to work with some budding research stars. If I do mentor research assistants how can I make sure I am successful? That depends on your definition of success. A successful summer internship to me means that (a) I have helped the students reach their goals, and (b) I have something useful for my research objective by the end of the summer. To achieve (a) the first thing I do in our very first meeting is ask the students why they wanted to work with me on this project. I have probably already asked this in my interview with the students, but it is always good to get a refresher. Then I try to make sure I integrate things into the summer program to ensure everyone is getting what they need. Below are examples of student requests and what I try to do to help them reach their goals. Assume I have just asked the student "What would you like to make sure you gain from this project by the end of the summer?" and they have replied...
I would like to know if I want to go to graduate school. - I try to be open share what it was like when I was in graduate school (the good and the stressful). I also have talked with students about the different job prospects with a BS, MS, and PhD.
I just want to know what research is like. - This is easy because it is a research summer. If this is the goal then in the first week I try to be a little more hands off. Additionally I like to have the students come up with the next research steps, as opposed to me telling them. Ex conversation: Student: "I am confused on what to do next." Me: "What do you think you should do?" Student: "I don't know." Me: "I did not ask you what you know, I asked you what you think. Remember there are no wrong answers here." Student then proceeds to tell me something that is normally very good and insightful. Me: "That sounds like a good next step. You might also consider trying _____. "
I am hoping to get better at coding - If their summer project is a coding project then this is easy. If the summer project is not a coding project, then I might ask them to make some graphs in python as opposed to excel. I might also tell them to do the data processing in python as opposed to excel.
In summary, my response to these is normally to try to make sure they know I will try my best to work their goal in. I view a verbal agreement as a promise, and the only way to build trust in a research group is through kept promises. I then proceed to tell them about my goals for their project which I have normally written down in a one page document and given them before the internship started.
I would like to acknowledge that while I have had success I have also had some not so great experiences. During my PhD I had one student that no matter what I said or did they would just not work on the project. It was clear that all they wanted to do was get paid for the summer without having to put in much effort. If you have a bad experience do not let it deter you. For me 1 student out of 24 is a small price to pay for the friendships I have built over the years. Even though I hadn't even finished my PhD two of my previous research interns came to my wedding, and one thanked me after he got his dream job at Dell. The successes far outweigh the failures.
How does your advising style change by degree level? For all levels, I normally try to give people more freedom at the beginning so they can understand the research process and the challenge of having to think through a complex, often unstructured problem. At the beginning of the project I try to write a one pager (or paragraph) with the overarching question. Then I give it to the student, and ask if they have any questions. I then ask them to go write a research plan, or come up with the steps for how they might go about solving this project. With tasks and goals I tell them to remember SMART goals, which I discuss in an earlier blog post. That being said I do try to change things up at the different degree levels.
First up we have the next generation of game changers...the undergraduate research assistants. This is where I would give the most guidance and more concrete project. It might be the data analysis side of one of the energy models my PhD students use, or might be some preliminary data collection and analysis. It is concrete with a clear deliverable. I also often bring in one of the MS or PhD students so that the undergraduates will have someone to ask questions if they get stuck. Normally the final research output is a poster. However if they want to consider graduate school I often suggest they write a paper. If they do write a paper I work to give them at least 2-3 rounds of meaningful feedback to help them transition from class reports to technical writing.
Next we have those that have decided that they want to go beyond the BS degree, but are wanting to test out research a little more before they commit to industry or the PhD... (crowd holds their breath in anticipation)... the MS students! This is where I normally give a more open ended project/coding with a clear deliverable. I try to remind myself to help them determine WHAT needs to be done, and then give them as much freedom as possible for HOW it gets done. I also try to have each student write a paper by the end of the summer to explain their results, and hopefully get published.
Last, but certainty not least we have the heart of academia...*drum roll*... the PhD students! This is where I try to give the most independence. I might say the idea of what we want to do, but it is up to the student to determine the methodology. Similar to the MS students I try to remind myself to help them determine WHAT needs to be done, and then give them as much freedom as possible for HOW it gets done. They may be given a little more freedom in the what gets done since they will be working with me for 4 - 5 years. That being said with the way the work force is going I have strongly suggested to some of my students that they start doing things in python instead of excel. It is more learning up front, but it is super helpful down the line.
Let's Wrap It Up.
I will note that one of the reasons I took on so many students this summer was due to COVID, since so many people lost internships in the economic downturn. To accommodate 9 summer interns I had to meet with my MS and undergraduate interns in groups of 2-3. When I asked some of the students for feedback they said they would prefer more one on one time, and feedback. I explained the COVID situation, and how normally I would have preferred a smaller group. They understood, but it still does not solve the too many students too little time problem.
For all of the advice above please keep in mind that I have been advising students since I was in the PhD (over 6 years). I started with one student over the summer, and was able to develop my advising styles over time. I also took the Entering Mentoring Training which is designed to train people how to mentor the next generation of scientists and engineers. I highly recommend the training because it radically improved the quality of my mentoring, the experience of those I worked with, and I still use what I learned to this day.
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Note about the author: Destenie Nock is an Assistant Professor position in Engineering & Public Policy (EPP) Department as well as in the Civil & Environmental Engineering (CEE) at Carnegie Mellon University. She loves working with students because of the direct impact she can have on helping people get to where they want to be in their career. She holds a PhD in Industrial Engineering an Operations Research from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She earned an MS from Queen's University of Belfast, and two BS degrees in Electrical Engineering and Applied Math at North Carolina A&T State University. In her free time she has had to learn some new social distancing hobbies. During COVID she has rediscovered her past self which reminded her that she loves to paint, sew, and go for walks in the park.