Undergraduate “advising”

Sometimes, being a grad student means that you are perceived by undergrads as being something like A Person With Knowledge and Authority. They assume that you’re someone who has seen things and done stuff and, rightly or wrongly, that you might be more approachable (or perhaps simply “safer”) than a professor if they’ve got something they need to get off their chest.

So, every now and then, an undergrad lingers at the end of class or finds me in my lab, not to talk about their course work, but to chat more generally about their schooling, their interests, and the next steps they’re considering in their academic careers.  Sometimes my role is simply that of a sympathetic ear (“I have no clue why I’m here or what I’m doing with my life.”); sometimes it’s that of someone with experience (“What things did you do to help you get into grad school?” “What’s it like working with so-and-so?”); and other times it’s that of an advice-offerer (“What should I be looking for in a future advisor/job opportunity/grad program?” “How can I make my resume better?”)

I’m always flattered when I’m approached by these students, but I’m also always hyper-aware that they’re likely actually LISTENING to what I tell them, so I have to choose my words carefully and be certain that they understand that THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE IS THE OPINION OF ONE GRAD STUDENT ONLY, AND DOES NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF OTHER, BETTER, SANER, MORE EXPERIENCED PEOPLE.

I do my best to encourage them in their efforts and help them explore different options for positive actions they can take to help them reach their goals. I also think it’s important to be honest with them about the nature of graduate studies and what it’s like to do research.  Many undergrads don’t really understand what it means to Do Science, so it’s hard for them to wrap their heads around what a future as a scientist might look like.

I get that. I had no idea what it meant either when I was in their shoes.  I was just a really, REALLY lucky schmuck who, at age 22 and in her third year of a B.Sc., was taken under the wing of a professor who saw potential in a student who got easily geeked out over interesting natural minutae. And bugs. (Especially bugs).

This professor offered me a position in her lab to do an undergrad research project in my fourth year.  It was my first real exposure to proper research.  I applied for and was awarded my first research grant; I designed and executed a study involving both field and lab work; I learned how to deal with the literature; and I wrote a paper that was eventually published.  I liked the experience so much that I stayed on and did my M.Sc. under her supervision.  Had she not taken the time to guide me through the process and to show me how things worked (the good, the bad, and the ugly), I might not be where I am today.

So, when an undergrad asks about Doing Science, I usually tell them something like this: “Doing science means spending a lot of time thinking about what question you want to answer. Then you spend a lot of time reading about what other people have done, and what they have discovered.  I consider myself lucky; I get to spend at least a few weeks every year in the field, collecting data.  Yes, only a few weeks. A couple of months at most. The rest of my time is spent in the lab, analyzing samples, entering data into spreadsheets, doing statistical tests, reading more (and reading MORE) and writing. Then hopefully I’ll publish my results.  Then I start over.”

They’re usually surprised (and often dismayed) that Doing Science does NOT look like being David Attenborough 24-7. But they’re also usually grateful to have been given that insight.  More often than not, they’re still interested in trying it out, either as a volunteer or during the summer as an assistant.  Whenever possible, I’ll try to steer them in the direction of an opportunity, if I know of any. I even took on a volunteer of my own this term; he’s working with me in my lab, and it gives me great satisfaction to see a young person showing interest AND talent, and that I’m able to give him a useful outlet for both.

What do you all think? How do you approach advice-giving when it comes to undergrads? How do you perceive your role in these kinds of situations? Have you ever regretted the advice you gave? Have you ever wished you’d done more?

I’d love to hear your experiences!

3 thoughts on “Undergraduate “advising”

  1. My experience has been similar: I try to be honest and take pains to explain that my opinions are just mine.

    But this one time I was probably too honest with an incoming International student, when I told him about some of the hard parts of grad life. I have a feeling he didnt take it well. 😛

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    1. Is there such a thing as being “too honest”, really? I suppose it could come across as griping/complaining, or too negative (depending on the mood you’re in). Although, perhaps in some cases it’s better for each person to discover the challenges on their own…?

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  2. I consider myself a bad TA in that I try to convince students not to go to Med School but to pursue graduate studies. Ha! I know they won’t listen, but why does med school get all the sharpest minds?

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