ask a scatterbrain: mentoring

A question about mentoring, sent to me:

I’m a new assistant professor at the end of my 2nd year at a R1 university. Research is fine. Teaching is fine. But I’m having a really hard time figuring out how to manage research assistants. I suspect that the first thing you will tell me is this: “It’s really important to communicate your expectations clearly.” And I know that, on some level, this is true. But (and tell me if I’m wrong about this) the main quality of a good RA is that a good RA exceeds your expectations. Great RAs do the grunt work without complaining, they don’t need to be monitored constantly, they turn tasks into opportunities, and you clearly see them transitioning from student to colleague. Can I legitimately set this as my low bar?

RAs here are HUGELY expensive because tuition is very, vey high. Hiring an RA for the year costs about as much as 2 course releases. This year I used grant & start-up resources to hire 2 research assistants. RA#1 is supposed to work on an existing (funded) project and RA #2 is supposed to be working on a new project I’m trying to get off the ground.  RA #1 is a 1st year student who works hard, works independently, comes to me when stuck, has good work habits. RA #1 is not perfect, but does not repeat mistakes, is pleasant, and shows a lot of promise. We’re a good fit and will start publishing together soon. RA #2 notsomuch. RA #2 will do exactly and only what I ask for and not very quickly. Over the course of 7 months, RA#2 hasn’t demonstrated enthusiasm for the work, and I don’t think she understands what it takes to convert the RAship into opportunities to publish. Quite frankly, since the beginning, I’ve felt like I’ve been paying RA#2 to create more work for me (meetings, emails, double-checking work, etc.), and I’m not pleased about that.  Just as the requests for next year’s RA assignments are due, RA#2 delivers some overdue work and asks for feedback on a proposal that suggests she intends to continue working with me on this topic. Hmmmm.

If I were senior, I may be inclined to sit #2 down, give her a good talking to, and give her another chance. Be a good mentor. Shepherd the struggling student. All that jazz.  But I’m junior, junior, junior. My book isn’t quite finished. I have kids I don’t spend enough time with. I have a partner I don’t spend enough time with. And I almost never exercise. I’ll just come out and say it: I’m unwilling to invest my time and resources on a student like this who isn’t a sure thing.

The questions I’m struggling with today: Do I owe RA#2 an honest & thorough explanation for the fact that she’s going to get shuffled to another professor or to a TA position? Do I really have to have this awkward conversation and tell her I made up my mind about her months ago and that what she’s delivered is too little too late? How to I avoid this happening again in the future?

No – I didn’t not sit down with the RAs after the 1st or 2nd or 3rd month to give them feedback on their progress. I now realize why I should have done this. But I really didn’t want to look #2 in the face and tell her she basically sucks — or put the effort into figuring out how to say it nicely.

Yes – I know that some of this makes me sound like a really, really bad person/mentor/professor. Only sometimes, though.

9 thoughts on “ask a scatterbrain: mentoring”

  1. you can’t get a do-over and become the mentor you weren’t. You didn’t give the feedback that was called for in a timely way and you didn’t say what was bothering you until it was too late for her to do anything about it. YOUR bad. But that said, you should not re-hire her now — first, it clearly conveys that your discontent, however expressed now, really isn’t all that serious (or you would not rehire her) and second, because the odds of your getting what you pay for in the second year are even lower than in the first. You should admit to and apologize for your failure to realize that more mentoring was called for (perhaps because you were distracted by project #1), but affirm the need for you and the RA to hit it off intellectually and that you just don’t think that the project excites her enough for you to want her to continue with it.
    However, when you go to hire a new student to work on this project you need to be really, really clear about what work you do expect and provide continuous feedback about the speed, quality and quanitity of work being done (including renegotiating expectations if you are the one underestimating the time or effort a task needs!). Make clear also the difference between working on a project for the money and general experience(without interest in making it partly the student’s own) and working withy an eye to co-publishing. If you want the latter, then interview potential candidates with that in mind and lay out what is expected to earn that “promotion” in the course of the year. Not all RAs have the luxury of being able to work on projects they personally care about. But if you are ok with just getting a certain amount of work accomplished, even without intellectual engagement, that might be fine with you too. Just know what you want and communicate it.


  2. Telling #2 the truth will be uncomfortable but is the best thing you could do for #2. Which is not to say that #2 will like you for it. I once re-hired an RA under similar circumstances with only vague discussions of my discontent and year 2 was, indeed, worse than year 1.

    One of the hardest things about being a grown up, i.e. about making the transition from student to prof, is learning that much of your job is to evaluate other people. Being “nice” in the sense of refusing to tell people to their face when you have criticisms of them is ultimately unprofessional. The trick is to learn to treat people with dignity, respect and humanity even as you are critical of them. This is not easy and is ultimately never 100% successful, but is well worth aiming for.


  3. As somebody who is also near the end of my second year in a tenure-track position, I am surprised that the writer has either forgotten what it was like to be a graduate student or took on the qualities of being a “good” (i.e. spectacular) RA with little or no guidance. I have a problem with the idea of giving somebody a “good talking to” when she is likely not aware she has done anything wrong. From the standpoint of a graduate student, who, depending on her stage in the program, may also be completing coursework, studying for comprehensive exams, working on a master’s thesis, writing a dissertation proposal, and/or trying to maintain sanity and some semblance of a social life, the fact that she is completing what you ask her to do could easily be viewed as a successful RAship.

    My advice is that you DO give her a “good talking to,” but instead of focusing on the fact that you feel she is insufficient for meeting the goals of her appointment as far as she is aware of them you should focus on the ways that YOU have failed to communicate your expectations clearly and the ways that this has resulted in a working relationship that would need to change if it were to move forward. If this is her first time serving as an RA this would also help her be aware of the expectations that faculty have for their assistants so that she can be honest with them about whether she is able to meet their expectations.


  4. I am finishing my post-doc and getting ready to start my own faculty position, so I think that my advice is more in line with the graduate student perspective, but with some experience working with undergraduate (and to some degree graduate) RAs. Because I don’t feel qualified to speak to being a faculty member, I will provide my impressions as a graduate student and post-doc.

    The best working relationships that I have had started with what is a relatively uncomfortable conversation that went over a) what the expectations of my work were, b) how much I would get paid, c) what the time line for projects is, and d) [the most uncomfortable of all] expectations surrounding authorship. The relationships that started with a very clear understanding of these topics worked out the best; those that didn’t were often frustrating.

    In addition, there was a long time that I didn’t know that I was supposed to look at my RA work as an opportunity to publish — I thought that it was the paid work to do that kept a roof over my head and I was expected to find my own rainbow and publish that material. I think that this brings up an important point about how graduate students might not know how to turn projects into “opportunities.” It wasn’t until about my fourth year that I realized that I could pipe up and start to suggest topics for publication and that I could even lead some of those projects. This was even after I did some work and one of my mentors said, “We should turn this into a paper.” I was excited; but, I had no clue what the next step to do that was. Since I didn’t know what the concrete next step was (and was, at the time, too timid to ask), I never followed up and that work has never been published beyond the extended memo/report that I wrote.

    Like I said, I can’t speak to this specific situation. I can say that I met deadlines and did all of the work that I was supposed to do (or communicated when I was going to have a difficult time making deadlines, e.g. around the end of the semester when class papers were due). But, I do think that it is important to remember that sometimes mentors need to describe the very concrete steps (steps that seem quite obvious even to me now) to do something like publish a paper, do good RA work, or see being an RA as a research opportunity.


  5. Another comment from the POV of a current grad student. I definitely did not see RAing as an opportunity to co-author; no one ever told me that. I thought RAing was about doing the work that was assigned and getting paid to do so. I figured that one could learn a lot by RAing, but not that it was supposed to be more than advertised – assisting a faculty member in producing their research.

    I think that faculty overestimate how much grad students “know” about what it means to be a grad student, and how to get better at it. It’s just like learning any profession. If we don’t get quality feedback, how are we ever supposed to learn? And of course, some people seem to pick it up and ask the right questions, but that shouldn’t stop faculty from being a little more proactive with those who don’t. Students are quiet and timid not because they are lazy, but many times because they are intimidated and scared. I never quite understand why a faculty member considers it too much to ask for them to have a 30 minute conversation about what is expected.
    It would clear up so much and make for happier people all around.


  6. The commentators who stress the importance of stating expectations are, of course, correct. The problem is that young professors are often unprepared to mentor; most people have to learn how to mentor. So all you new inexperienced mentors out there (and students who need to be mentored), here’s what you need to know:

    (1) An untrained student who is slow to learn, and particularly one who isn’t very interested in your project and exhibits no enthusiasm or initiative about it, will be a net loss to your project — it will take more time to tell the person what to do than it would take to do it yourself. A student who is being paid by you but avoids you, fails to show up for meetings or to get things done by the agreed-upon time (i.e. fails to meet the basic standards of any job), or complains about how boring your project is will never get better. The kindest thing you can do is explain to them why you don’t want to rehire in the hopes that they learn from the experience and do better in the next job. Any student who is a “bad employee” for two different professors can justly expect that no one will want to hire them.

    (2) An untrained student who is willing to work hard and is interested in your project will initially take more time to train than to do the work yourself but will “pay off” in the long run when they overcome the learning curve. But if you don’t have the time (or don’t take the time) to train them, they won’t be able to learn. Students can’t really go off and do work without supervision until they have been trained. And even if they are good and have been trained by others, the professor still has to have enough of a sense of direction to organize the project. I’m afraid I have “wasted” many student-RA hours of people who were not bad RAs (as their subsequent performance for other people demonstrated) but not good for me because I really did not have good ideas about how to use other people’s time or how to define joint projects we could do together. Both mentors and students can take initiative in this situation. Student employees can say: “I know my appointment is supposed to be X hours a week, but I’m not sure exactly what I should be doing for this. Should I be asking you for assignments each week? How should we arrange to give feedback.” Mentors can say: “I’m hoping you’ll take some initiative and find a part of this project that you can make your own. If you don’t feel you have a clear enough idea of what you should be doing, please tell me so we can talk about it.”

    (3) A good grad student is the one who can come into a project already-trained and read not only do the work efficiently and well but have creative ideas and initiative about the project. This is, of course, the situation we dream of, and I’ve had quite a few students like this over the years. But they are a minority and they are virtually never first-year students. This is hitting the jackpot, it is not the minimal expectation for an RA.

    Every entering graduate student should be told multiple times in orientation that an RA should have work to do and should expect to be trained. A good orientation would give grad students a check list of “things to discuss with a research employer or potential employer” to help everyone get on the same page.

    Every faculty member should be given a similar check list of “responsibilities of a professor when you hire a RA.” The good trainers know this, of course. But new faculty and also older faculty who rarely hire RAs frequently don’t know what they should do or what are reasonable expectations.


  7. I think all the above advice is good, but unless you are otherwise awash in money or time, I think it has to be a quite good RA to be worth two course releases.


  8. I think it’s extremely problematic for you to assume that your RAs are not reading this blog, and to write about them here. I’d be more careful when talking about your grad students (and your undergrads) this way on a blog, in a way that may hurt them unnecessarily


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