I’ve seen people talk past one another when discussing undergraduate research. This is usually because each person in the conversation has a radically different notion about what constitutes undergraduate research.
Students might not be aware of the time horizons of applications for opportunities. Oftentimes, these things need more advance planning than expected.
Here I suggest timelines for undergraduates doing research and applying to grad school, particularly within the United States. Please make sure that students working with you are aware of these deadlines.
Applying to graduate school
You should be deep into grad school applications at the start of the Fall, one year before you plan to start grad school.
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.
The last couple weeks have posed a challenge, as several people have contacted me (mostly out of the blue), asking me for ideas about specific steps they can take to improve the recruitment of minority students. This isn’t my field, but, I realize I’ve put myself in this position, because it’s a critical issue and I discuss it frequently. I’m just one of many who work in minority-serving institutions.
I realize that most of the suggestions I’ve given to people (but not advice) are generalized. If several folks are writing to me, I imagine there are many more of y’all out there who might be thinking the same thing but not writing. Hence this post. Just with my suggestions.
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.
At the moment, I’m having an absolutely great time at the Ecological Society of America meeting. I’m learning new science, meeting old friends and a variety of folks who read this site, and formulating plans for my sabbatical that recently started.
This wonderful time has been punctuated with moments of my own frustration and annoyance. Why? Because this is a typical academic conference. And the status quo is often maddening.
NSF just announced their Graduate Fellowship (GRFP) awardees.
The US National Science Foundation has changed a rule for their Graduate Fellowships. As of next year, grad students can only make one attempt at landing a graduate fellowship, which is intended to increase the proportion of awards going to undergraduates.
Science is full of ideas that people somehow accept to be true, just because people say it’s true. We’ve all heard wonderful just-so stories that are waiting to be dispelled by data.
Let me tell you about three myths.
The first myth was that gastric ulcers are caused by stress. All kinds of medical treatments were predicated on this notion. When a researcher figured out that gastric ulcers were caused by bacterial infection, it was considered so outlandish that he had to infect himself to convince the medical research community. (In 2005, the Nobel Prize was awarded for this finding.)
For the second myth, consider the three-toed sloth. For about a century, it’s been said they specialize on Cecropia leaves. One twist on the story is that that the trees are tastier to sloths because they have weaker chemical defenses, because the plants are defended by ants. Then, in the 1970s, two biologists radio-tracked sloths for a couple years in Panama and found that yes, they eat Cecropia, along with many other plant species. If you track them with radio collars, then you get to see that they are not Cecropia specialists.
The people who radio-tracked the sloths did not receive a Nobel Prize.
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.
When people ask how I run my lab group, I don’t know how to respond. It boggles me because these perfectly normal questions often have assumptions baked into them, about my university, my students, and the kind of work that happens in my lab.
It’s only natural that folks might compare my “undergraduate research lab” to the template of major research institution lab, most of which also feature undergrads in substantial roles.
The way I run my research program, and the students involved, is probably different than you might imagine unless you’ve spent a bunch of time at an underfunded regional state university like mine.
The most recent paper from my lab is a fun one. We show that thieving ants have a suite of sneaky behaviors, to help them avoid being caught in the possession of stolen goods. These differences are dramatic enough to classify thieves as a distinct and new caste of ant.
How many undergrads in your department want to go to grad school?
Do all of them know what grad school is about?
Are there any students who might benefit greatly from grad school but aren’t even aware of the option?
Have you thought of collecting real, publishable, data as a part of lab that you’ve taught? Specifically, is it workable to use a single lab activity, conducted over multiple sections over multiple years, to build a dataset to ask a pending research question?
I started this morning with tremendous news: a student of mine, who left my lab for a PhD program last year, let me know that his NSF Graduate Research Fellowship was funded!
I had two other former students who put in applications. I downloaded the big list from NSF, and — alas — they did not have the same fortune. So, I was 33% happy.
Are your lab members aware when they do not meet expectations?
Out the outset, students should know what is expected of them. This enables their success as well as gives them a way to avoid a shortcoming. It also makes things easier on you when you’re dealing with underperforming students.
Here is a detailed report on my brief experience with the SACNAS meeting, aggregated as an unordered set of observations and thoughts.
I used to have Work-Study students doing research in my lab, when I was visiting faculty at Gettysburg College. Then I got a job somewhere else, and I couldn’t do that anymore.
The university where I now work does not assign Work-Study students to work with professors, just like my previous employer. There was a clear institutional policy that prohibited using Federal Work-Study awards to fill undergraduate research positions.