Managing and Mentoring Students in your Applied Statistics Lab

As professors of applied statistics, many of us also supervise student researchers. At my institution, I have anywhere between 9 and 15 undergraduate students whom I manage and mentor in research. I have found a great book, The 12 Elements of Great Managing that seems to fit with the work I do with my undergraduate students, and certainly would apply for those of you working with graduate students. As graduate students, ourselves, many of us were never taught formal pedagogy or managing skills, and yet to be successful professors we need to master both.

The 12 Elements of Great Managing can be found at http://gmj.gallup.com/content/26281/The-First-Element-of-Great-Managing.aspx .

Briefly, (and modified to fit with managing and mentoring students in a research lab) they are:

  1. Students should know what is expected of them. I find in this area, some students need more specific guidelines than others as to what is expected of them. This is not as easy as it sounds, as if you spell out for your students exactly what they are to do and when they are to do it, where does their creativity come into play? However, we should be looking at each individual student within our lab so they know what is expected of them.
  2. Students should have the materials and equipment to do their job right. Again, this is a bit challenging, particularly in this difficult financial climate. And, let’s face it, learning how to accomplish a task without having ALL of the material you need is a skill worth teaching our students, as they, too, will be faced with budget shortfalls … yet, when possible not only should material and equipment be provided, but the appropriate training for students to use the equipment and materials will help your lab function more smoothly.
  3. Students should have the opportunity to do what they do best. I’m sure I’m not alone in having different assignments for students in the lab. The assignments are based on the skill sets of the students. We have all had that student who was just great at data entry, but not much else. There is the student who is super organized and able to work out detailed schedules for data collection. There is the computer programming student and so forth. Certainly, we should be striving to help students grow in all areas, but having students work in tasks that highlight their strengths (and minimize their weaknesses) makes for a better functioning lab.
  4. At least once a week, students need to receive recognition or praise for doing good work. I’m continually working on the optimal method of praise without resulting in students competing with each other for “my affection.” (After all, I do love them all.) For now, I have been trying to highlight how the task that each individual is doing (or should be doing) impacts the larger research project, and applying some of the principles of Carol Dweck’s mastery oriented thinking, but praising students on the process and not the product, as there is indication that such a focus maximizes students’ adaptive behavior.
  5. The students need to feel like we care about them. I think this should go without question (or need of further explanation.) If you don’t care about students, it is probably time for you to spend some time reflecting on what you are doing, and why you are doing it. (A sabbatical might be a good idea, too.)
  6. Students have to feel like their development is being encouraged. I think this should be coupled with building on students’ strengths, and, yes, at times helping students to recognize their own weaknesses and develop a personal plan of growth. Of course, one way to help facilitate this kind of development within your team is to model it for your students in yourself. I regularly set out to students my goals for personal development, and seek their feedback as well.
  7. Students’ opinions need to count, and they need to see how it matters in the larger research plan. I find it helps by referring to how prior students’ ideas have shaped our current research. Students get to see … students’ opinions not only count, but are critical for the success of our projects.
  8. The research that is being done has to “matter” to the students. This is where, if you are working in the area of basic research that your lab may simply not be suitable for everyone. But the people who join your lab should believe that the research they are doing  matters to them, otherwise, they will be less effective. I am very specific before students to commit to joining my lab as to what the projects are they can chose from or will be assigned to (sometimes I select students for projects, other I let them pick … not surprising, it’s dependent upon their skill set and the project’s needs).
  9. Students need to feel everyone in the lab is committed to doing quality work. As the manager o the lab, it’s critical to help students to recognize when it may be time for them to depart or stay and work toward the lab’s goal. Not everyone is suited for research, and that’s OK for students, especially undergraduates, to figure that out.
  10. Students should be friendly with each other. Some years this has worked out better than others. I can tell you, a single student who makes it clear he/she won’t work with others unsettles the entire lab. However, in general, I have found that students self select into my lab, and they make new friends that seem to last beyond graduation.
  11. Most of the time, my lab groups meet in teams, but it is critical to at least twice a year, meet with individual members and discuss their progress. I am planning for this coming year, to have students make up a deliberate practice goal, and when we meet, we’ll discuss how they have been progressing in that manner.
  12. Students should be learning and growing … why else work in a lab? Of course, what that means for us, as teachers, we need to be looking for signs of how they are learning and growing, and evaluate if there is anything we can do to further facilitate their growth.

I know this is a little off from one of my typical posts (which is why I will be immediately following it with a more traditional post). However, as with most of my posts … a situation occurred this week in my lab. I won’t go into details, as my lab is just too small, and I suspect at least some of my students read my blogs and they’ll be able to figure out what happened. Suffice it to say, it was time for me to look critically at how I handle my research students, so that each one can achieve to his or her greatest potential (and beyond).

 I know … you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him think … but we still must do everything within our power to help our students develop to the highest possible level they can be, and the 12 elements of managing others seems like a good place to start.

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