How to run a summer undergraduate research lab


That title should indicate a question rather than a set of instructions.

How do you run a research lab in the summertime?

We’re approaching that time when campuses get really quiet, except for us scientists who are working year-round.

Many of us have undergrads funded (through a variety of internal and external funds) to work in our labs in the summer. What does it take to make sure that get work gets done on schedule, in high volume, and with the proper level of quality control? What can you do to make sure that the students have the best research experience? Are those two things wholly compatible?

What policies and procedures do you have, if any? Do you use a timecard with fidelity? How often do students report on their work formally, and how much time do you actually work alongside your students? How much is expected of the students in terms of hours per week, research product, or both? Do you have students write up much their work in the summer, save all it for the fall, or do they just hand over data to you and you write it up?

Please share your favorite practices, and ones you know that don’t work, in the comments. We’ve got lots to learn from one another.

I imagine that marital and reproductive status affect how you run the lab over the summer, too.

I tell my undergrads that I have three priorities for summer research:

  1. Everybody is safe
  2. Everybody has a fun time
  3. Everybody is collecting genuine data that is designed to be part of a publication

I explain that all three are mutually compatible. We are doing real science, not a make-work research “experience.”

That said, I have almost no experience with personally mentoring undergraduates in the lab throughout the summer.  Students working with me in the summer head to a large rainforest field station with me for a few weeks. And then I leave them behind to continue their projects, typically in the hands of capable peers or mentors. As my wife has described my field site, both the atmosphere and physical environment resembles the hybrid of a college campus and a summer camp. I’ll be sharing plenty more about this while I’m on site, just a few weeks away. (Gaaah! Not ready!)

If there’s a meltdown in my absence, or if a hole pops up in my schedule, then I might return back to the forest before the summer ends. But otherwise, much of my mentorship is conducted via skype and email. Which is no small task. I don’t supervise my students doing their field projects as closely as I could, but I have found that giving students with great judgment latitude to make decisions works out really well. I don’t allow students with less-than-great judgment to work independently in the rainforest. I’ve gotten pretty good at picking out the right students in advance, with the help of my colleagues, but I also intentionally occasionally take chances on students who I think might be deserving of a the opportunity. I’ve gotten burned occasionally, including last summer when I had to send a student home after just a few days.

I don’t think I could or would want to spend my summer in my lab. It’s glorious outside, and I want to travel, often in the guise of science, and I also want to spend lots of time with my family. So, when I’m not at my field station, I’m often working at home. There’s no shortage of writing projects that need my attention. If I were in the lab with students all summer, when would I be able to write?

7 thoughts on “How to run a summer undergraduate research lab

  1. Hey Terry,

    Really great post–really enjoy your blog in general.

    This is my first summer having a big group of students in the lab. The field site is a little drive away from our campus, so some students are going to be working in the lab on campus, and some are going to be out in the field. I’m going to have a couple of days of training for the whole group. First, on campus, where the projects that we’re working on will be put into context and the whole group will learn a little bit about insect ID. Then, we’ll spend a day out in the field getting to know the ecosystem. This gives the lab folks an idea of where the insects they’ll be sorting come from, and the field folks and idea of what the people in the lab are doing.

    Each student is likely going to work 1-2 days per week (all volunteers, no funding), and I think I’m going to log hours with a google doc excel sheet. I’m going to be bouncing between the lab and field, but I’m hoping once I get them going that I can spend my time on getting a bunch of writing done (probably a pipe dream!).

    I’m still not sure how the logistics will work, but hopefully we can have a productive summer. Good luck!


    • Thanks, and good luck! To retain volunteers, maybe assigning critical roles to good ones (data management). One thing that occurred to me just now is that you could set up google forms for the spreadsheet so they have a quick route to make new entries. It’s really easy if you haven’t done it before.

  2. As an “ADD ecologist” with interests and collaborators in lots of different fields, I often have students working on very different projects, e.g., modelling caterpillar physiology vs. plant community ecology in the field vs. informatics type macroecology/biogeography. We still meet as a lab once a week, and this summer I will be trying a joint meeting with another lab (plant ecophys). We read and discuss a paper and have lunch together, and towards the end of the summer use the meeting to share preliminary results.

    In part because I too like to spend time with my family, I have kept my field work close to home, but as my daughters grow up and leave for college, I look forward to more cosmopolitan field work with my students. But whether in the field or in the lab, I basically give about one full day to each of my students for side-by-side or face-to-face mentoring and working together. This helps keep them on track and gives me a chance for continuous QAQC so that we get to the end of the summer with good data or model output.

    My institution’s “summer science scholars” program, which has funded about half of my students has a poster session in the fall which is the deadline for write-ups, but I will generally have my students at least write a methods and results section for the work they did that summer. That way I have research protocols and results along with archived data, code, etc. to pass along to their successors on larger projects, or to form the basis of a paper should their project be a stand-alone type affair. The fall posters can also end up as a basis for presentations by students at national meetings (Integrative Biology and Biogeography are both in the winter).

    One thing that I found that didn’t work, though it seems mundane, was having a student start late. He was international and made a trip home before starting his research. This allowed me to get into my summer routine without the habit of mentoring him and pushed the prime part of his project right up against my end-of-summer scramble getting ready for classes to start. Now everyone has to start first week of June, latest.

  3. Instead of answering, I have questions for you! Do your students do individual research projects, or are they all working on bigger projects? If individual, how do they decide what project they’re working on? Do you have project ideas in mind, or do they come up with them? And if they come up with them, how much reading do you have them do about your system before hand?

    • In short, it’s highly individualized. I used to go down with a small gaggle for a few weeks, and then we’d knock out one big but short-term project, and then I’d just get the paper submitted by the end of year, or something like that.

      Now that I have the $ to support multiple students for the whole summer, I’ve scaled up. (Of course, every three years I have to renew the battle for the funds with the feds.) I run my program so that a number of students are typically farmed out to other international collaborators, but I hang on to 1-3 of them.

      Sometimes I take down return students. With them, I design a project in collaboration with them, since they know the forest and the critters and such.

      However, the bulk of the students have never seen a rainforest before, and it’s hard to design a project without having any knowledge of the study system. Lots of ideas just are impractical or won’t work when you try them. We discuss the concepts that we are working on, we read papers related to the issues at hand, and I have in my mind the components of several different overlapping experiments that we could do. I have a vague-to-specific idea of what will happen, but I don’t tell the students in great detail because that’s putting the cart before the horse. After getting set up on site for a day or two, then we design the project. With the students involved, it’s better than if I just did it myself.

      I am pretty straightforward about my approach with students when it comes to the overall concept, question and design of the experiment. Some students ask me, “could I do an experiment on X or Z?” And I’ll say, yes, but I wouldn’t be able to design a great one with you on that. Let me ask you another question: do you want to do design your own experiment, or do you want to publish your work? Theoretically both will be possible, but it’ll be less likely if it’s the former.” That gets students on board real quickly.

      In addition to reading a bunch of papers, I also have my students read ‘A Neotropical Companion” just to get them ready for the forest. They get a lot out of the natural history having read it in advance.

      Ideally, they are working collaboratively on one big project, with each of their own pieces. Sometimes, they work on entirely different things. I’m usually overambitious in scope and try to get too much done, which means the students are often scattered working on a variety of things. This summer, though, we have 2.5 people working on one big thing, each with a different piece. (It’s a follow up to the sunfleck story from weeks back.) And then there are a couple other things, too.

  4. Neat. I especially like the part where you divide one student in half. ;)

    This is something that I think about a lot, and I think it applies to grad students too. Mainly, are students deferentially motivated if they pick their projects vs. if their advisors/mentors do? Its cool to see how other people approach finding projects for everyone. Thanks!

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