One of the challenges that PIs of research labs at liberal arts colleges face is the “revolving door” problem — students graduate and their vacancies need to be filled with new students. In principle, this isn’t much different than when PIs at research universities graduate their MS and PhD students; however, we face at least 3 unique circumstances in the liberal arts setting. First, our new students often lack the basic research skills that many incoming graduate students have (“You mean I was supposed to write that down?” “Randomize what?”). Second, in liberal arts research labs, PIs frequently do the majority of the scientific training of incoming students whereas it is common for undergraduates to work primarily with senior level graduate students when receiving their training (or, in some cases, take part of in multilevel training). Lastly, undergraduate students sometimes want to do research with multiple faculty members while completing their degree and thus it is fairly common to train a student for a semester and lose her/him from your research group. Because of this, we can have less overlap between our senior-level and incoming research students.
I’m not blindsided by these challenges and this post shouldn’t be taken as my hidden wish that I was conducting research in a different setting. However, as I finish up my 2nd year as a PI, I’m now starting to cycle through students and I’m trying to think through the logistics of how I can have some institutional lab knowledge passed from cohort to cohort so that students have the opportunity to train their peers and so that I can maintain my sanity.
One approach that I’ve found particularly effective is to embrace teaching in the introductory sequence in your department/program. At Allegheny, we have 3 courses in our Intro Sequence; I’ve taught our 2nd intro course the first 3 of my 4 semesters at Allegheny and I also taught our 3rd course all but my 1st semester. I’ve previously blogged about our 3rd course (FSBio 201) and if you have a course like this at your institution, this is an easy way to recruit students interested in your research. However, our 2nd course (Bio 221, Genetics, Development, and Evolution) is a traditional lecture course and faculty generally view teaching these courses more “departmental service” than anything else. However, I’ve built amphibian/chytrid case studies into this course in a number of different areas, which has made the material more exciting to me and also to the students. I’ve also recruited 3 of my current, and 1 of my incoming, students from this course. Recruiting sophomores into your research lab has the potential for tremendous payoffs in terms of research productivity. In my case, this core group of 3 students should each graduate from Allegheny with 3-4 publications each (including a 1st authored publication for each of them).
I also advertise and accept independent research students into my lab every semester. During my first 2 years at Allegheny, I’ve averaged 4 students each semester. These students are frequently sophomores with high energy and eager to ask questions (but lack general research skills and a knowledge of the literature). When taking students, I expect them to start and finish a research project and thus I fully commit to this process myself. The idea is that through time, my involvement in the training will be less and less of a time commitment because these independent research students contain a mix of prospective, incoming, and senior-level students on the same project. I’ve been lucky to retain many of the students that have worked with me and I think that my approach of continually taking on new research students will pay dividends down the road as I’m able to let students train each other more frequently.
Lastly, because I work with charismatic critters, I have an opportunity to get students interested in research simply because amphibians are pretty awesome. I frequently ask my research students to invite some of their friends who are interested in research out with us on collecting trips, evening salamander migrations, or amphibian call surveys. This is my hook for students that might not know the benefits of getting involved in faculty research. This is the fun and glamorous part of the research: little work and seeing amphibians in the field [sometimes for the 1st time for students!].