1. About
  2. Features
  3. Explore

I'm a fairly new Assistant Professor at a 4-year university. As is often the case our teaching load is high and we are also expected to do research. Personally, I like both teaching and doing research.

  • The difficult part of it, however, is to attract the students to work in your lab (often on a voluntary basis) that will make it worth the time and effort needed to train them.
  • The other challenge is this: once you have a student that you clearly see has the ability to perform well (both intellectually and skill-wise to work in a lab), how do I motivate them to spend as much time as they can in the lab?

It's obviously not worth it when a student starts an experiment and then loses the motivation to come in in-between classes to make a measurement. It's my feeling that the students see it like this: "if I come in and do some work in the lab, then that's good and useful for the professor", but without the true engagement to learn something from the experiment, without the student having the curiosity and passion to follow-up, it becomes more like waste of time and money.

Obviously, I realize that I'm asking a lot. It's generally accepted that this kind of behaviour/motivation can be expected from a Ph.D. student, but not so much from an undergrad. Nonetheless, this is the situation that many professors are in since they only get to work with undergrads and are still expected (and genuinely want) to do exciting research. If I could, I would spend much more time in the lab myself, but it's just not always possible.

1 Answer 1

What are the students getting in return for this?

  • Experience/interesting work? Then it's fun, but don't ever expect them to treat it as more than a hobby or fun project.

  • Money or course credit: Then it's their job to show up and work. The will show up, or you will fire them / fail them.

  • Publication: are your students credited on the publication? Will doing this work build their CV and make it easier for them to get jobs, or accepted into grad studies?

Anything else seems to fall dangerously into "how can I turn undergrads into unpaid interns". They have their own classes to work on and their own lives to run, and doing experiments probably isn't what gets them out of bed every day.

Does your university have a "Capita Selecta" or "Project Course" or "Individual Study" option? If so, you could give your students course credit for their involvement in your work, in which case they would be obligated to show up. They would get enough out of their contribution that it would be worth their time.

It's generally accepted that this kind of behaviour/motivation can be expected from a Ph.D. student, but not so much from an undergrad.

Because the PhD student is being paid to be there, and the undergraduate isn't.

The takeaway

Being an undergraduate is hard. You've got 4-5 classes, all of whom want you to work like that class is the only one you're taking. You are probably having to work to pay your way through school, and you are trying to have enough leisure time that you don't go insane.

Your best way to get them interested is to take away one of these stressors: pay them (so they don't have to work), give them course credit (so they can take less classes), or treat it like leisure (so they can do something they enjoy casually).