Get Some Help! Extra Pairs of Hands


To some folk, the journey from A-levels to PhD must seem like a ridiculously long one. Looking back I realise that the only thing I ever really disliked during all those years was that 'perpetual student' tag. But at long last it seems that I have gained the respect of my nearest and dearest. "You mean, you've actually got people working for you!" my brother exclaimed the other week, clearly impressed. I had just mentioned one of the undergraduate project students I supervise in the lab. It suddenly dawned on me that, yes, I now have my own people: a couple of students and a part-time technician. But, if the idea of an extra pair of hands or two is always appealing, it nonetheless needs careful consideration. You need to recruit someone worthwhile--so how can you improve your chances of attracting the golden candidates? And when you've got them, how do you make the best of their time?

During our PhDs we've probably all shown undergraduate students or fellow postgrads how to use equipment or learn a new technique. But directing what research someone else does is a different kind of challenge. We junior postdocs are all grown up and, as fully paid-up researchers, we should be in the business of collecting growing lists of possible experiments. But, with the prospect of an extra pair of hands, how do you decide what on your list is worth ?putting up? for an undergraduate or master's degree project? One option is to pick a long shot and hope for one of a long line of students to strike gold, even though it is unlikely to produce anything much in inexperienced hands. Alternatively, you may select something uninspiring but more achievable. You know, either something that should be done but is just too boring for you to get around to, or something unlikely to ever reach the top 10 in your priorities.

At such an early stage in my career I'm naturally focussed on getting papers out, so I find myself erring heavily towards achievable goals. When designing a project, I'm hoping the student?s results might provide a useful pilot for a new experiment or even a table in my next paper. Only in moments of wild abandon do I consider the prospect of a little paper all of its own.

As you have a list of possibilities that, let's face it, would take 10 years just to pilot, don't give your prospective helpers too many choices--it?ll just overwhelm them. Neither should you make the project sound too rigid, as your description may not appeal to the one person who might have taken it on. Finally, make sure the techniques are fairly easy to learn, because even the most capable student is on a tight time limit. You want your student to be able to turn the handle and watch at least some decent results slowly emerge.

Once you've selected an offering from your list you need to sell it. Writing project outlines is a creative art whose sole aim is to entice large numbers of the most capable students to plead with you to let them work for you night and day for no pay. OK, OK, more realistically you want at least a couple of people showing cautious interest when most students probably wouldn't look twice at your area of research. So you've got to make the project sound really sexy. Have a good look at your research. Identify any areas that might provide eye-catching keywords for your project outline: you know, cutting-edge techniques or anything involving a nasty disease or explosions.

Pack your 200-word project outline with your attractive keywords and, above all, make it sound exciting but doable. Bear in mind that you are selling yourself as well as your project. You are competing for students, for many of whom the main concern is whether the project supervisor is nice or nasty. If you are like me and you haven't done much teaching yet, they clearly won't know the first thing about you. As an unknown entity, don't expect to have to reinforce your office door to withstand the rush.

Be professional and arrange to informally interview any respondents. It's not surprising if you find yourself being a bit keen to get any 'early birds' on board. After all, you don't want to end up with someone who's predicted a third-class degree and only had you down as his or her fifth choice. Having said this, don't make the mistake I made when my first potential candidate came knocking on my door. He was up for a ?first? and I got too excited. I bombarded him with information and ideas and showed him where everything was as if he were starting the following Monday. Bless him, he tried to show enthusiasm, but in truth, by the end of half an hour I must have scared him senseless. With my second potential candidate (hoping for a 2:1 degree) I tried much less hard to impress. A quick tour of the lab and an even quicker demo of the type of thing they'd be doing seemed enough to prompt a flurry of questions. This enabled me to reassure them about their ability to do the work, get on with me, and write the thing up: my first lesson in pastoral care.

In my next article I'll deal with the hands-on aspects of managing your budding, and not so budding, lab helpers!

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