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.