Friday, October 28, 2011

care and feeding of your undergraduate research minions

In my previous posts on this topic (, and here), I talked about structuring research with undergraduates, and choosing good undergraduate RAs. This post is about keeping your research team running smoothly, once you've assembled them.

First, I should mention something that I left out of my post on choosing undergraduate RAs. I wrote that I announced the RA positions in my classes and had students fill out applications. But I didn't just "announce" the positions, I gave a short presentation in each class where I explained exactly what would be expected (hours per week, weekly meetings, readings, writing or independent research, etc.), and exactly what tasks I foresaw being part of the RAship (washing bones, initial sorting of bones, data entry into Excel, helping to format bibliographies in Word, library research on assigned topics, creating figures in Illustrator or Photoshop, etc.). I asked the students I chose for the positions to think about which of these activities they would find more interesting. Some students really want to work with their hands, others really prefer to crunch numbers, and others just want you to point them in the direction of basic tasks. Matching your RAs with their interests will make life easier on everyone.

Second, I insist that everyone on the research team attend a weekly meeting. It can take some doing to find a time when everyone is available, but it's too easy for over-stressed and over-committed students to just disappear for a week or two or ten. A weekly meeting greatly cuts down on the number of AWOL RAs, and improved team communication. At the meeting, we tell each other what we've done on the project during the past week, and I discuss and assign tasks for the coming week. My RAs have the opportunity to ask why we're undertaking certain tasks, and to get clarification on our ultimate goals. Often, the conversations turn to fieldwork opportunities, graduate school plans, academic problems, etc. These are smart, committed students, and they have lots of questions about how academia works, what career options there are in archaeology, and what the best course schedule would be for the next semester. I really enjoy these conversations, they're essential to the advising part of my job, and they add an aspect of mentoring to the RAship that wouldn't necessarily occur without those weekly meetings.

Finally, I try to push my RAs to get more out of the experience, so that it is as beneficial to them as possible, while at the same time keeping them tied tightly to my own research needs. An example of pushing my RAs: Not all of my RAs end up doing independent research. Depending on the type of RAship, they may just do the tasks I set them, and never really think about the context and purpose of those tasks. However, Tiny U has a number of fellowships/grants to support undergraduate research, so I strongly encourage my RAs to identify aspects of my research that they find most interesting and to pursue those as independent research projects in future semesters. I even come up with a list of appropriate topics, with some indication of the data that would be needed to test the hypotheses and the methods that would need to be employed. I help RAS to craft proposals for the fellowship applications, work through the research itself, and oversee the subsequent write-up (including co-authored papers or conference presentations).

At the same time, though, I find it critical to tie student's research very tightly with my own. Some of my RAs express an interest in doing something well outside my research interests, such as working in a different region, or with plant remains. I am very firm in saying "no" to their requests to take on directed studies or in any other way getting intimately involved with that type of independent research. I just don't have the time to walk them through the process if it means learning new literature and methods myself. If they want my help, they must work on materials I have in my lab, or on some side issue with the data that I've collected. I will work with them on other topics, but only if it relates so directly to my research that there is potentially a publication down the road (for example, the research may produce some useful comparative data to my own), or at least their literature review will help fill in holes in my own knowledge (for example, if the student wants to research stable isotopes, a topic I need to learn more about myself.)

Restricting my undergraduate RAs to my research has been incredibly important. I'm grateful that I'm allowed to do so. Some of my Tiny U colleagues in other departments are not so lucky. Many departments require students to do a senior research project, chosen by the student, and supervised by a faculty member. The faculty members cannot dictate or limit the students' choice, and frequently end up supervising research on topics very far from their own interests, sucking up a great deal of time and energy. If you're in a program like that, you have all of my sympathy.

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