In my department, we have a complicated relationship with REU (Research Experience for Undergraduate) programs. We have several well-funded active labs on my campus that provide quality mentored research opportunities to biology undergrads, so students in our department do who want to have impactful research experience have access to them. However, it’s still valuable for these students to go to an REU program at another university in the summer. REU programs*, especially those in places with a bunch of PhD students around, may have a strong positive impact on the professional trajectory of students who are doing their undergrad at primarily undergraduate institutions. Even though academics are known for unnecessarily qualifying general statements with “may,” “might,” or “possibly,” the may that I italicized in the previous sentence was there by design. It might have a positive impact. Or it might actually have a negative impact. It depends.
Over the last few months, I’ve had some quality time with a bunch of other mid-career academics who are (also) experiencing an inflection point in their careers. We’ve advanced to a certain level, and now we’re wondering, “Where do we go next?” This state of mind has been amplified by the disequilibrium that the pandemic introduced into our jobs and our own lives. (Stay tuned to this space for more on that inflection point, perhaps.) Anyhow, another thing that floated to the surface was how the Hidden Curriculum™ is a problem for us too.
We usually talk about Hidden Curriculum™ as a mechanism of inequity for junior scientists. For example, undergrads aren’t aware of the procedures and cultural norms that of the grad school application process. Grad students are often unfamiliar with the schmoozing etiquette of the prevailing (upper-middle class white) culture in their discipline.
Some bad news is that the gatekeeping never stops.
What are some expectations, norms, resources, and pathways that aren’t transparently shared with mid-career faculty, but can be really important? Here are some examples that have come up:
This is just a quick post to let you know that EEB Mentor Match is now launched, and is ready for you to sign up! Please get the word out to your colleagues, students, and professional societies.
This program was designed to help students applying to graduate school find the support they need. If you feel like you could use some support in untangling the mysteries and challenges of applying to grad school and for fellowships like the NSF GRFP, then we are here for you. Please sign up to be assigned a mentor!
This program is a grassroots effort that relies on members of our community to provide mentorship. If you’ve volunteered in previous years, you may or may not have been assigned a mentee! Regardless, please do sign up this year so that we can assign students to mentors whose expertise best fits their needs.
As developed nations are on their way to returning to normal, we in the United States are in this pandemic for the long haul. January 2021 is the earliest that our government will even possibly start to do anything about the situation, and I’m not sanguine about the probability of a legitimate election outcome in what’s left of my country. That means it’s on us to figure out how to do science even under these conditions. Because as scientists, we need to keep doing science, now more than ever.
When I returned from sabbatical three years ago, I held off on bringing new students into my lab, other than doing some short group field projects. I had a bunch of reasons* to not take new students on.
My plan was to ramp back up this year. And I still I think it’s time to for me to get some students back into my lab. This sounds fun!
Not everything about 2020 is horrible: We’re running EEB Mentor Match again! More than ever this year, undergraduates from under-resourced institutions need guidance to help them into graduate school. Undergraduates in minoritized groups can use a boost from those of us who have cracked the code to get into grad school and get funded.
We are pairing up students seeking support for fellowship and grad school applications with more experienced scientists who have agreed to give support and advice throughout the process. If you’re looking for a mentor, or you’d like to volunteer to be a mentor, please sign up!
This is the announcement of EEB Mentor Match for 2019!
We are pairing up students applying for graduate school and graduate fellowships with more experienced academics who have been through the process. If you’re an undergraduate or recent graduate who feels that you could benefit from more support, this is for you!
An article arrived in my inbox this morning and it seems so spectacular, I wanted to highlight it as its own post:
Emery, N., A. Hund, R. Burks, M. Duffy, C. Scoffoli, A. Swei. 2019. Students as ecologists: Strategies for successful mentorship of undergraduate researchers. Ecology and Evolution. DOI: 10.1002/ece3.5090
There are a lot of students who are enrolled in institutions that lack the resources to provide the mentorship that they need. And, there are so many PhD students and postdocs who would be interested in gaining more experience mentoring undergrads who would benefit from the experience. How about we put them together?
I’m back down at the field station in Costa Rica (missing my family quite a bit) and I had a very minor realization while having dinner among my students. It’s definitely a cliché of sorts, but I realized that the t-shirt I was wearing was older than some of my students.
I know this because the t-shirt had a specific date on it
The moment after students graduate, many resources and opportunities become unavailable. This is a problem.
I know a lot of scientists who got their start from an REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) program. One summer as an REU has the potential to be transformational.
Advancing science in the US (and elsewhere) requires us to fund undergraduate research, and ensure that undergraduate researchers have thoughtful and attentive mentorship. We already spend a lot of money on training students – and I’d like to make sure that these efforts have the biggest bang for the buck. We are focused on broadening representation, but we haven’t seen the changes we need. Can we make REU programs* more effective?
I’ve griped about how undergraduates from wealthy private institutions and public research universities get the lion’s share of graduate fellowships. This happens for some obvious reasons of course, and I’m pleased to introduce a scheme that — with your help — can contribute to fixing this situation.
To get right to it: I’m teaming up with Meghan Duffy to pair up mentors with students from Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) to give them guidance and support as they put together their fellowship applications. (Meg has been the leader on this.)
To participate, see this post from Dynamic Ecology where she describes the project.
Folks can throw around the word “mentoring” rather sloppily. Which can lead students to being told that they’re being mentored, when they’re not.
I’ve seen a bit more of this while reviewing a variety of formal “mentorship plans” (in the context of panel service). A lot of people get what mentorship is about. But a good fraction of the plans weren’t so much about mentorship as they were about supervision — they said what the “mentee” would be doing for the “mentor,” but not specific about how the “mentor” would be supporting the specific needs of the “mentee.”
So what is mentorship and what isn’t? I volunteer an example for your consideration:
This fits my experience so so well. I am first gen American, started at community college, transferred to a good public university and struggled but ultimately graduated with a 3.2 GPA and did OK on GREs. Had zero “social capital” (and had no idea what that was). I was lucky to have a TA (PhD student) who took me under her wing and had me volunteer in her lab a few hours a week and an excellent professor in my last quarter who informed me about internships and helped me secure one specifically targeting minority students (and it was paid!). Anyhow, after gaining a lot of experience though field jobs , I applied and was rejected from many PhD programs and ended up going to a small CSU, racking up student loans and working full time while getting my Master’s. I then applied to one of the better ecology programs with excellent letters of reference and was flatly denied. Again, luckily I had a greater supervisor at a govt agency who was very supportive and together we published a couple of manuscripts. I re-applied to that same ecology programs and was offered a multi-year fellowship (no TAing, no RAing). The only difference in my application was the publications. Now that I am in the program, I look around at a sea of white faces and most of them I have come to find out are straight out of undergrad, no pubs, very little experience, just great grades and test scores and a lot of social capital and opportunity (paid internships, semester at a field station, paid field methods courses, etc) . What a load of crap.
When I start a new batch of students in my lab, my spiel includes:
Two problems can prevent success. The first is poor communication, and the second is poor data management.
At the moment, I think this is true. As poor data management is a by-product of poor communication, it really just boils down to communication.
Earlier on in my career, I was too quick to attribute communication failures to my lack of approachability, or poor decision-making by my students. I don’t see it this way anymore.
I’ve seen a lot of great teachers in the classroom. And they all teach differently from one another.
So, to become a great teacher, you don’t have to follow a set of prescribed steps. If someone is telling you that a certain teaching approach is required to be great, then skepticism is warranted. You can be a great teacher by using an approach that is all your own. (You can also use your own approach and be a nightmare. Your mileage may vary.)
I’m convinced that 9-month positions are bad for pretty much everybody. Especially driftwood faculty.
This week I was having a conversation with folks at Charles Sturt University* in Australia, which has a bunch of wonderful ecologists. This is the middle of the summer break here in Oz**, and classes don’t start back up for at least another month or so. But there wasn’t any problem catching everybody for lunch at work. They were writing grants, or papers, or getting other stuff done. Do you know why they were on campus? Because they were working. They were getting paid to work. Over the summer break.
This might sound normal to you. But for readers outside the US, you might not realize that this is not the status quo in US universities. By default, faculty at US universities are employed for nine months. Or maybe ten months.
Conversations about “undergraduate research” often involve dispelling misconceptions.
Undergraduate research is not one thing.
What is undergraduate research? It is research that involves undergraduates. That’s all, nothing else. If you want it to mean something else, you might have to spell it out.
A couple weeks ago, I emphasized that most PhD advisors are really good.
In a haphazardly conducted poll, one in four people reported their PhD advisor that was not caring or helpful. Crappy advisors may not be the norm, but we still have 1 in 4 too many.
I’ve seen a variety of situations, choices, and outcomes over the years, and would like to share some thoughts with grad students who are experiencing a bad PI. I’m hoping those of you who have gone through nasty experiences might be able share insights as well. I’ve just been a bystander, and there should be many more voices than my own.
When dealing with a bad PI, I think there are two big questions:
- What can be done to ameliorate the situation?
- When should you bail on your PI and move to a new lab or even a new institution?