Thursday, October 27, 2011

gathering your (undergraduate research) minions

In a previous post, I talked about including undergraduates in your research. Mentoring and providing research opportunities is an important part of my job at a liberal arts college, and something the tenure committee will look at closely. On the other hand, supervising undergraduate assistants can suck a lot of your energy and time away from your own research, unless you manage it wisely. My last post was on the structure of undergraduate research as it integrates with your own. This post is on how to gather your undergraduate research team.

I find it hard to recruit good undergraduate research assistants. It's not that they aren't out there, it's just that I don't always know what characteristics will make the best RA. At first, I chose students who showed a great deal of enthusiasm in my classes, even if they hadn't been the top grade-earners. This turned out to be a mistake. They were pleasant and fun, but they didn't get top grades because they weren't consistent workers. They couldn't be trusted to show up on time, or to put that last bit of effort in to do the task right.

After that, I only chose students who were at the top of my classes. In general, this worked better, but I ended up with a student with unusual interpersonal skills (I assume she fits somewhere on the autism spectrum), which caused very severe communication problems for which I was not prepared. This also can lead to RAs who had overcommitted to other research or extracurricular activities and aren't willing to do as much for your research as you could hope.

My current approach has worked better. Last Spring, I announced the upcoming RA positions in all of my classes (and Dr. Mr. Palimpsest's archaeology class). I asked students to fill in a statement of interested that asked for their:
planned time of graduation
majors and minors
overall GPA and GPA in anthropology
classes taken in anthropology or archaeology
previous research experience
other jobs/commitments expected during the RA period
name of one reference

Most of the students who applied were already known to me, so I could judge their pleasantness, commitment to their work, eye for detail, etc., from personal experience. The information about how well they did in school in general, as well as how over-committed they plan to be, was extremely useful.

This semester, I have a cracking research team. Partly this is luck, but partly this reflects changes in the characteristics I value in an RA. YMMV, of course, but here's what I look for now:

pleasant personality, but not necessarily a social butterfly. I'm a complete introvert, but I have nothing against extroverts. I did learn the hard way, though, that enthusiasm for archaeology sometimes just reflects the student's extroversion, not their true commitment to the field. On the other hand, extremely quiet students may not just be "reserved", their quietness may mask an inability to effectively communicate with others.

attention to detail and pride in doing things right. These traits often separate the A students from the B students, but not all A students have them, and not all B students lack them. I can often see these traits in how well students write, and whether or not they go the "extra mile" in class assignments.

first- or second-year students. I find these students to be less over-committed, better able to balance the RA-ship and classes, and, ideally, willing to continue working with you for years to come.

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