Wednesday, November 4, 2009

How Many Undergrads Can One Grad Handle?

I'm beginning to think I didn't play up my mentoring experience enough in my job applications. It certainly feels like I managing a research lab of my own at the moment. I don't have any of the administrative headaches in grant allocation and HRC approval, but I do have three - count 'em, three - of my very own undergraduate students.

Senior is conducting an honors thesis. He came on after the first experiment was designed, and handled all the data collection. Now, we've analyzed the first experiment of data, and get to spend the next two months designing a follow-up experiment, in the hopes that he'll have something meaningful, or at least two experiments of null results, in time for his defense. This leaves me juggling the careful nurturing of his own ideas and involvement, the practical matters of what I "know" to be better design, while also fretting over the ongoing headache that is research design. We certainly will be using our entire weekly meeting time for the rest of the semester.

Junior is also conducting an honors thesis, planning to defend a year early just so she could conduct her thesis with me, and not at long-distance when I am (hopefully) away at my new job next year. She first worked with me as a senior in high school, completing a special mentorship program, so we have some experience working together, but I'm starting to find myself frustrated with her lack of self-direction. She is very good at doing whatever I tell her to do in a timely manner, but not so good at figuring out for herself other things that should be done. This is part of what the senior thesis is for, of course, but suddenly it demands effort in figuring out how to teach such metaphysical skills.

Sophomore (I think sophomore, and even if not it allows for beautiful continuity) is not conducting an honors thesis, and is not even running an independent project. I am trying very hard not to mentor her at all, in fact. I requested of our lab coordinator someone who could handle data collection for my final dissertation experiment, with the understanding that this would not be a mentoring relationship, just a change in pace from the normal lab duties. Even so, there's a certain amount of training that must go on, and somehow the meetings have been weekly and hour-long this month as we deal with programming errors and I try to provide some amount of support for all her hard work.

Now that I've passed from a single student, to a pair, and finally into an actual group, it certainly seems as if I'm running my own lab. The managerial details of making sure they keep their promised lab hours may fall to our lab coordinator, but I am trying to write a dissertation here (theoretically). If anything, the size of my lab will decrease when I get a job, because there's no way I'll be able to train three new students in the mess of first-year facultydom. I'll try to keep that in mind as I pass from one student meeting to another.

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