21 October 2013

Do you know what your professor does?

Last week, I gave a talk on research culture, about which I shall write more later. I wanted was feedback from people who work with or hire starting research students, especially at the undergraduate stage. I took to Twitter, and was grateful for the feedback on this question (and several others). I asked, “What do students do right, or wrong, when they first contact you about research opportunities?”

The most common answer, by a long, long, looooooong ways was, “I want students to have some idea of the research I do.” To give few examples:

Wrong = have no idea what my lab does.

I want someone who knows why they want to work in my lab.

Read some lab pubs before talking to PI.

Wrong: they don't know that my lab is computational. Right: they have checked some of my publications.
Gabo MH

Do show up in my office having read a few of my publication abstracts (on my web site) with a specific possible interest.

Show that you have actually looked at my website and read some papers, and explain what skills you have that are aligned.

Prospective student claimed interest in my lab, then asked what I study & if I have pubs. Informed her about Pubmed.

This reflects a larger aspect of research culture: the expectation that people who want to join in research will read the literature. Of course, new people may not know what “the literature is,” thinking we mean Dickens, Chaucer, Homer, and the like. But we can explain that to them.

That said, back at a mentoring workshop I was participating in a while ago, when I told students that they should have an idea of what professors do, one student spoke up. “Isn’t it egotistical for you to say you’ll only work with students who will work on projects interesting to you?” I can’t remember my answer. I’m still struggling with this question. Research opportunities on any given campus are finite, and I do wonder how many people get turned away who might be able to make good contributions.

Photo by Thompson Rivers on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.


kubke said...

This is cool Zen. “Isn’t it egotistical for you to say you’ll only work with students who will work on projects interesting to you?”

One answer would be could work on anything else? Depending on the level of the student, if you are not interested in something, chances are you wouldn't have the resources (either intellecctual, technical, etc) to provide the student with the best quality science experience you can provide. Granted, you can tweak projects to fit the student's curiosity (and try to recruit colleagues in for a bit more insight) but in the end if you don't want to run the risk of teaching mediocrity, there is only so far away you can move from what "you do".

Emily Hazlett said...

"Isn’t it egotistical for you to say you’ll only work with students who will work on projects interesting to you?”

The students are asking the professors for an opportunity, not the other way around. There's a difference between expecting some initiative to figure out what they're asking to get involved with and being inflexible about research topics. Without that initiative, how is the student supposed to know if the lab is even equipped to tackle the sorts of projects that they're interested in?