Monday, November 10, 2008

Undergraduates in research

There are a couple of interesting discussions going on over at Isis's bright, shiny new home regarding how undergraduates should approach PI's they're interested in working with, and how said PI's interact with such undergrads.

I am a big proponent of having undergrads working on research projects. I like working with undergrads in the lab. They tend to be enthusiastic and willing to learn. I have pretty much always had one or more in my lab right from the time I started at Big State U. A number of them have been extraordinarily productive. During the almost 12 years I've been here I've published seven papers with undergrads listed as authors. Six of those have an undergrad as first author. Another, with an undergrad first author, should be submitted in the next couple of weeks. Some readers of my blog may recall that I am also PI on an NSF REU Site grant that pays for a bunch of students to come do research in the department each Summer.

Based on my experiences with these students I offer up the following:

For undergraduate students-

  • Choose the PI's you're thinking of approaching carefully. Just because they're working on something you think is cool doesn't mean they're a good choice. Do they seem approachable? Have they had/do they have undergrads in their lab? Do they have a large lab, which would increase the chance that you wouldn't have much interaction with the PI? Check out their website for a start.

  • Don't spam a bunch of PI's via email. Write each person you're interested in an individualized message. Indicate why you're interested specifically in them. Read up on the work they're doing. Every single undergrad who has ever worked with me scored a position because they had done their homework. And asked to talk to me.

  • Be honest about why you want to try your hand at research. We do know that many premeds want the experience to increase their odds of getting into med school. Personally I have no problem with that - I'm in a college of medicine after all. Some PI's don't want premeds in their labs for a variety of reasons, some quite good - if you're premed you probably don't want to be in those labs. Besides, if we know what you want out of the experience we are in a better position to help you get it.

  • A tepid reference letter for grad or med school from a "rockstar" professor won't help as much as an enthusiastic letter from a lesser known, more junior person. Tepid reference letters will often hurt your chances, not help.

  • Be enthusiastic and be prepared to work hard. And remember that the PI has many responsibilities and may not always be available when you want/need them.

  • Finally, keep in mind that many PI's at MRU's are not required to have undergrads in their labs. Paying tuition does not entitle you to a place in someones lab.

For PI's-

  • Undergrads are a lot of work. Even the really good ones. But they are, IMHO, worth the effort. Heck, I've got seven, almost eight, publications as a result of working with undergrads. And they're fun.

  • Don't take on an undergrad unless you're prepared to put in the work. You could assign them to a grad student or postdoc, but if you do, make sure you make some effort to stay involved in what they do. They came to work with you.

  • Having a trial period in which an undergrad does scut work (washing dishes etc.) is fine. Just don't make it too long. Using an undergrad as free scut labor makes you a jerk. If you're paying them to do scut work and have no intention of getting them involved in research, make sure they understand that before they start.

  • If an undergrad has earned authorship, give it to them. And put them in the right place in the authorship list. Bumping them out of a first authorship they've earned in order to give it to a grad student, postdoc or yourself makes you a serious ass wipe.

Undergrads can rock in the lab. If given the chance.


Ambivalent Academic said...

Wow! This post has been lingering here for like 12 hours with no comments?!?!

I thank you for your advice to UGs...I myself went to a SLAC so prof-face-time wasn't hard to get but I appreciate that this isn't often the case and Big Research U's.

I just wanted to say kudos to you for looking out for the little guys and giving them a head start on how to navigate all of the "research experience" stuff. I frequently find myself wishing that there was some kind of Emily Post for scientific relationships...I think that there is an established etiquette out there but my graduate mentor prefers to let me figure that out for myself rather than clueing me in. Thanks for taking the opposite approach.

PS - You're on my blogroll...hope you don't mind :)

Odyssey said...

I wish there were an Emily Post for academic science. And, unfortunately, I'm not sure there really is an established etiquette out there. There may have been once, but with the way we communicate changing so rapidly I think we're now in an "etiquette limbo".

And of course I don't mind being on someones blogroll! You're now on mine.

JLK said...

"Don't take on an undergrad unless you're prepared to put in the work. You could assign them to a grad student or postdoc, but if you do, make sure you make some effort to stay involved in what they do. They came to work with you."

Hey there Odyssey. I love that you posted this, especially the comment I C&P'd above. I sought out a professor who is in the top of her field, has only 3 undergrads working for her (including me) and also has studied some really cool stuff. She was the only person I approached about research, I did my homework, and still got pawned off. As I spent more time in the department building and labs, I realized how few of the professors at my MRU are actually doing their own research. Turns out, most of their publications are grad student work with their names added as second or third authors. I was shocked, because I felt like that isn't how it's supposed to work. Why be a professor at an MRU if you're not going to do your own research? I'm sure it's different in other departments, but in mine that appears to be the standard.

JLK said...

Oh, and you're on my blogroll too. ;)

Odyssey said...

Why be a professor at an MRU if you're not going to do your own research?

This deserves a post all of it's own... I'll get to work.