re: Building a good relationship with research assistants

In an earlier post, a blogger discussed their hesitations with working with assitants in the research setting.  Specifically, they asked how they could, whent he time comes, trust a graduate student that they are adivsing if they already can’t trust their lab assistants.

This post hits pretty close to home to me because I have a tough time with micromanaging.  I’m constantly looking over my assistant’s shoulders, nagging them about the little things, redoing things I had them do, or spending countless hours in the lab because I’m doing things I don’t trust them to do.  It’s a problem.  But, I don’t think that will neccesarily transition into how I advise students that are working on their own projects.

First off, assistants are often only doing the job for the money, and are thus more likely to not take the work seriously.  So, they are going to cut corners and do everytihng that you fear they will do.  And, trust me, I’ve caught my assistants in the act before, which probably only fuels my constant need to micromanage.

I also think that students, especially graduates, when they take on their own project, get a bigger since of responsibility because they know that if things go wrong, it’s totally on them.  On your project, if your assitant messes up, it’s still your fault. But, I think faculty advisors can be a little more relaxed because they can larelgy blame any major problem on their students.

I think the absolute worth thing a research advisor can do is to constantly be involved in their student’s projects.  In my undergraduate institution, it was mandatory that everyone do a research project.  In one department, this was understood that you would get very specific directions from your advisor, do those things, and then come back for more direction.  That’s no research, that’s a lesson in following a recipe that requires no individual thinking.  

Now, my research advisor was a completly different story.  Early on, we thought of the project and talked quite often and at length for several weeks.  But, after that, we talked for about 10 minutes every morning over coffee just to make sure that nothing disasterous was happening.  Once he was satisfied the building wasn’t going to burn down or I wasn’t heading down a path I couldn’t back out from, we parted.  It was perfect because he made himself accessible, but let me know that it was completly up to me what was going to happen and that I was calling the shots.  Good or bad, it was my show. I did a lot of things wrong, and I know he could have prevented them.  But, it was  great learning experience.

So, I guess the only think I can say to follow up on the previous post was that I think it’s completly natural to micromanage assistants and be scared for your life they are messing something up.  But, once you are advising a project, you have to let go and let the student make mistakes. Accessibility is key, because you do have to realize when they are making mistakes. But, let them make them first.  Otherwise, you aren’t really helping anyone.  It might not really be the most productive method, but part of researching is the actual process of doing things wrong and brainstorming again.   

PS: The absolute worst assistant I ever had also just got into grad school.  Maybe something is wrong with the application process?

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