How much do you let students design projects?

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Now is the time of year when we work with students on designing summer research projects. How do you decide exactly what their project is, and how the experimental design is structured? This is something I struggle with.

ContinuumStudentIndependence

Image by T.McGlynn

In theory, quality mentorship (involving time, patience and skill) can lead a student towards working very independently and still have a successful project. Oftentimes, though, the time constraints involved in a summer project don’t allow for a comprehensive mentoring scheme that facilitates a high level of student independence. Should the goal of a student research project be training of an independently-thinking scientist or the production of publishable research? I think you can have both, but when push comes to shove, which way do you have to lean? I’ve written about this already. (Shorter: without the pubs, my lab would run out of dough and then no students would have any experiences. As is said, your mileage may vary.)

A well-designed project will require a familiarity with prior literature, experimental design, relevant statistical approaches and the ability to anticipate the objections that reviewers will have once the final product goes out for review. Undergraduates are typically lacking in most, if not all, of these traits. Sometimes you just gotta tell the student what will work and what will not, and what is important to the scientific community and what is not. And sometimes you can’t send the student home to read fifteen papers before reconsidering a certain technique or hypothesis.

When students in the lab are particularly excited about a project beyond my mentorable expertise, or beyond the realm of publishability, I don’t hesitate to advise a new course. I let them know what I hope students get out a summer research experience:

  • a diverse social network of biologists from many subfields and universities

  • experience designing and running an experiment

  • a pub

All three of those things take different kinds of effort, but all three are within reach, and I make decisions with an effort to maximize these three things for the students. Which means that, what happens in my lab inhabits the right side of the continuum, sometimes on the edge of the ‘zone of no mentorship’ if I take on too many students.

You might notice one thing is missing from my list: conceive an experiment and develop the hypotheses being tested.

Students can do that in grad school if they want. Or in the lab of a different PI. I would rather have a students design experiments on hypotheses connected to my lab that I am confident can be converted into papers, rather than work on an experiments of the students’ own personal interest. (Most of my students become enamored of their experimental subnets pretty quickly, though.)

This approach is in the interest of myself to maintain a productive lab, but I also think that being handed a menu of hypotheses instead of a blank slate is also in the long-term interest of most students. I’m not keen on mentoring a gaggle of students who design their own projects when these projects are only for their edification, and not for sharing with the scientific community. That kind of thing is wonderful for the curriculum, but not for my research lab.

Other people have other approaches, and that is a Good Thing. We need many kinds of PIs, including those that give students so much latitude that they will have an opportunity to learn from failure. And also those that take on 1-2 students at a time and work with them very carefully. I like the idea of thinking about my approach to avoid falling into a default mode of mentorship. Does this scheme make sense, and if it does, where do you fit in and how have you made your choices? I would imagine the nature of your institution and the nature of your subfield — and how much funding is available — structures these choices.