Supervising students from afar


Note: Heads up, the site is going to stay a little quiet for the next few weeks, during some vacation. Posts will continue, at 2-3 week, though I won’t be able to respond to comments or moderate. Come mid-August, things will pick up.

With students in the lab and the field during the summer, there are plenty of times when undergrads are working and their PIs are not working alongside them.

It’s typical for a PhD student to go off to do one’s own research out in some remote place, like Andean glaciers.  Undergrads, however, probably shouldn’t venture off on their own, if their project is going to be tremendously successful. And they probably don’t even work in the lab for extended periods without regular check-ins.

We can’t work alongside our students all the time. Our academic lives in the summer can’t principally consist of labwork and fieldwork. We have writing, conferences, and vacation.

As my lab is primarily built around field experiments, my students spend the summer in the field. The field, however, is several thousand miles away from home. This normally could be a problem with an undergraduate field crew, but I base the lab’s work out of an active field station. This site hosts a full community of other researchers, as well as great infrastructure that helps ensures that the resources for research are available, as well as meeting needs with respect to health and safety.

Am I concerned that the science might not work out as well as it might if I were there all of the time. A little bit, but not much. I have some rockin’ students, and I have full confidence that things are working out. Not only do my students know what they’re doing, but they also are good at diagnosing when they have doubts.

They know that I am easily contacted to deal with problems as they crop up. Except when I’m not available. I’m just returned from teaching a field course in a place that lacks cell coverage. I had wifi, but I wasn’t checking it every minute. Now that I’m heading on v

This is where I remind myself, this isn’t only my research; the students own the project as well. If they didn’t have the opportunity to make independent decisions, and have them be genuinely independent, then they wouldn’t be getting as much out of it. And, I’ve learned that when great students are making the calls things are often better than when I am in charge.

How much distance do you create/tolerate from the day-to-day work of your undergraduate research projects? What level of engagement leads to the greatest level of success?