Right-sizing my team of undergraduate researchers.

13 Dec

Motivation

When undergraduates at our university have success in their research and scholarly activities, word travels quickly.  When word travels quickly, the mentor of the successful students start receiving more and more inquiries about joining their lab for research.  I have gone from my first semester here wondering if students will ever find my research cool to now having to put research students on a waiting list.  Careful planning is critical to making sure each student under my mentorship has the best possible opportunity for success.

A little history

For two of the years I have held this position, a colleague and I were working on a large-scale project that was entirely funded by a series of external grants. That project required two faculty members, a full time research coordinator (the two we employed during this time were both alumni) , and a large team of undergraduates – each with their own independent projects that, taken together, answered much larger ecological questions.

During this time, I had 9 research students all in the same cohort.  This team accomplished a great deal and I feel that I was a good research mentor for them, but I will never take that many research students from the same class again.  At times I felt I had stretched myself too thin but felt justified by each of those students having all of the funding they could ever need (and huge sample sizes) to complete their projects and I also managed to get each of them to accomplish more than what was required for graduation. They all presented their work at least one time at the Illinois State Academy of Science meeting, but most of them presented multiple times and some at national meetings. Three of them received graduate assistantships and 4 others are already halfway through their first year of professional school for graduate studies in a human health care field.  The other two are taking this year off, but have their professional school applications submitted for next year.

Where are we now?

   I have 7 students in my lab now, and I am no longer working on one large, externally-funded project.  Fortunately, they are distributed among three different cohorts, and the maximum number of them who will be finishing their studies at the same time is 4. Four of them have unique, small projects, and the other three each have their own projects within a large project that is funded by an internal grant and involves ecoimmunology and disease ecology questions which will be pursued in collaboration with a local raptor rehabilitation center.  Each of those students working on the raptor project are pre-veterinary, which is a great fit for them and for me.

This Fall, for the first time since my arrival here at Millikin, I had to tell a student to either wait until one of my current students graduates or find another research mentor – as she is only a first-semester Sophomore, she has elected to wait and she will begin research with me late in her second semester as a Sophomore. I have three excellent Freshmen who have already asked to be placed on the ‘waiting list’ for next year when new spots in my lab open up.  Overall, figuring out how to manage such a large group of really great students is an excellent problem to have, but we must always evaluate what each student can gain by joining my lab relative to teaming up with another faculty member with peripheral interests. 

-TW

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