30 June 2011

Why your trainee sucks (and how to fix it)

I was a teenage dilettante.

And an undergraduate dilettante. And in grad school.

When I took my first post-doc, I realized that I had something to prove to myself: that I could go into the lab and do research, day in, day out. I had to develop some discipline as a professional scientist. It was the right time to do it. Even when I was in grad school, I was a teaching assistant. This meant I always had some obligations besides research. The post-doc was the first time I was expected to do not much else.

I recognize that dilettante part of me in a lot of aspiring research students.

Many aspiring research students have always been considered one of the “smart kids” through high school or earlier. For many, school was pretty easy for them. They were able to skate by without working terribly hard, because a lot of the stuff in class was not very challenging intellectually for them. This can mean that you’re able to dabble in a lot of different academic topics, because so many topics need similar study skills and thinking habits.

It’s easy for such students to proclaim, “I’m interested in everything!” It’s easy to claim interest in something if you’ve been passably okay and gotten good academic grades in it.

Of course, you should try out a lot of things in your early education. You could miss something that would be very rewarding, either personally or professionally, and it becomes harder to get some of those experiences later.

But the professional sphere is not friendly to dilettantes.


By the time you get to the point of being a mentor to research students, whether they are undergraduates or post-docs, you have gotten there because you can take a problem, and drill down as long as it takes until you get the solution. That you have a doctorate proves you can take on a project that takes the better part of a decade (at least in the North American higher educational system).

In contrast, a beginning research student has probably never had a project that lasted more than a semester, and was always running concurrently with other projects in other classes.

Bright students have been able to dabble for so long, I suspect many have an unconscious expectation think they can keep doing that. They get into a lab, and the mentor, the hardened and focused and disciplined professional (that’s you), is not interested in dabblers. “I don’t care whether you think you know the answer, run those damn replicate experiments so that we have the numbers to satisfy Reviewer Number Two when we submit this for publication!”

And for students who have been used to projects lasting a few months, even a couple of years on a single project for a master’s degree can seem like an eternity with no clear finish line.

Is shouldn’t be any surprise that to us mentors, our research students are flaky. Unreliable. Undisciplined. Why not? They’ve never had to be as disciplined for as long as you're asking them to be.

(To use a completely geeky analogy, it reminds me of a scene in World’s Finest #199. Superman is on a red sun planet, has lost his powers, and is getting his butt kicked in a fight against a normal person, because he’s not used to exerting himself. Normally, everything is easy for him.)

Armed with this point of view, a few ideas come to mind.

Making sure that a student’s research projects can be broken down into smaller chunks, rather than everything coming together only at the end. Otherwise, they may feel like there is no end in sight.

Give your trainees variation in the tasks they have to do. Even something like having to make and present a conference poster can be a welcome relief from the daily grind.

Make sure you communicate your expectations clearly. You may expect people to work evenings and weekends if necessary for an experiment (because you’ve developed focus and discipline), but this may be a completely alien expectation to someone new.

Be prepared for focus and discipline to emerge from your trainees gradually. Professionalism isn’t built overnight. They have to adjust to a whole new set of expectations.

Even though it’s been a long while since my first post-doc, I still joke that I have scientific attention deficit disorder. Look at my last two years of papers: ethics, ecological modelling, parasites, behaviour, sensory electrophysiology...

I haven’t completely vanquished my dilettante tendencies. But I’ve gotten better. Your students can, too.

Note: This is a sequel of sorts to a guest post I had on the BioData blog, “Why your mentor sucks (and how to fix it).”


Cartoon from here.

1 comment:

Simon said...

Aside from picking the topic they find themselves most wondering about, it's also important to recognize what methods your student enjoys. Have them actually think about what method they would like to do (or wouldn't mind doing) 100x times over.

Do they like staring into a microscope? Going into the field and collecting samples? Running gels? Or are they content spending a long time learning and using complex machines like NMR?