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:
- Everybody is safe
- Everybody has a fun time
- 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?