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A guide to diagnosing and treating ‘Undergraduate Awesomeness’

Whether you’re a graduate student, a postdoctoral fellow, or a faculty member, someone may have approached you about mentoring an undergraduate student in your lab. And you may have had this thought: “That … could be OK. I just hope this person doesn’t turn out to be, you know, one of those ‘awesome’ undergrads.”

Let me be clear: Lots of undergrads are good, competent scientists—or are at least humble and realistic enough to know that they’re not yet good, competent scientists. But there’s a certain breed of undergrad, the Awesome Undergrad—and man, when you get one of those in your lab, it’s anything but awesome.

You know the type. Full of confidence; empty of knowledge. A frightening persona of brazenness and naïveté that’s never been told it’s wrong—or possibly never listened. A deep and abiding scientific curiosity that mysteriously expires as soon as the recommendation letter is written. A drain on your time, resources, patience, and hope for the future, classifiable somewhere between an inconvenience and a safety hazard.

You see them for about an hour a day, Instagramming the lab equipment. They expect every experiment to work the first time. When they talk to you, it’s clear that they only see you as a steppingstone, a background character in the magnificent career trajectory that is their own narrative.

You have some sympathy for them, remembering how alien you felt in your first lab—and knowing that you may have made some of the same mistakes. But you’re still at a loss to figure out how to jolt some sense into them.

One of my friends, a biologist, recently experienced this. A few weeks ago, she posted on Facebook that she assigned her new undergraduate student three research papers to read—and the student claimed she had breezed through the papers in an hour. Did the student have any questions about what she read? Nah, it was all good.

For those of you unfamiliar with scientific journal articles, reading three in an hour is impressive; it’s some true beast-mode shiznit. They’re dense, jargon-filled, and—unless you’ve spent years working in that particular field—you can skim them quickly, but you can’t read them. It’s also natural to have questions, such as “What are these 500 acronyms?” or “When they say, ‘See supplemental material online’… must I?”

So, my friend asked her Facebook community how to tactfully tell her undergrad to take more time reading the papers and seek clarification as needed—but her question had a subtext as well. How do you deal with a nonawesome undergrad who thinks they’re awesome?

The first step is to diagnose the problem. Look for the following symptoms of Undergraduate Awesomeness:

  • You give instructions on how to complete a lab procedure, but the student takes no notes. You know you’ll have to give the same instructions several more times.
  • The student nods, grins, and then says “Got it!” in response to everything, yet you know they understand nothing.
  • The student can, and does, recite their CV unprompted.
  • Instead of asking how to use a particular lab instrument, the student assumes that all electronics function the same and just goes to town on your expensive equipment. When it breaks, the student tells no one, leaving the incident as a juicy mystery to be solved by the next user, typically when you need the instrument for a time-sensitive experiment.
  • The student announces having solved your lab’s most pressing problem despite only having learned of it that day.
  • The student’s lab notebook contains overly simplistic or irrelevant notes, with little detail where necessary and abundant detail where unnecessary. For example: “Did something with green powder, at the third lab bench from the back in room F220, where I left it on a shelf near the sink and rinsed the metal scoop and dried it with a paper towel, which went into the biohazardous waste container that gets picked up on Tuesdays, and then wrote all of this in my notebook.”
  • The student acts as though their youth automatically confers upon them a superior fluency with computers but doesn’t know how to use the “SUM” function in Excel.
  • When the student has downtime, they want to have a friendly chat with whoever is nearby, regardless of whether that person also has downtime. As a result, you end up trying to run your experiments while saying over your shoulder, “Uh huh. Yeah. Great. Wow, that’s very drunk. Okay. Sure. Sounds like you had a good time. Uh huh. I know, supermarkets are like that.”
  • The student tries to ingratiate themselves to you by trash-talking an idiosyncratic superior, not knowing that you respect that superior:

STUDENT: Hey, what’s with Dr. So-and-So? He wears suspenders! Ha ha! What a weirdo, am I right?
YOU: He founded our field.
STUDENT: I know, right? Like, how weird is it to found a field?

Now that you’ve diagnosed a case of Undergraduate Awesomeness, what do you do? A natural approach might be to ridicule the student and complain about them to your colleagues at every opportunity, but you’re above this. (Pretend you’re above this.) Remember that the hubris of the Awesome Undergrad often exists to mask a feeling of inadequacy that we can all relate to, a reasonable desire not to admit ignorance as the lowest lab member in the food chain. And besides, how are they supposed to know how to behave in a lab if we don’t tell them?

As mentors, we’re not just responsible for teaching undergrads how to do science. Sometimes we have to teach them how to operate as mature adults in a workplace, lest no one informs them until it’s too late. After all, undergrads are not the only ones who are “awesome”—there are plenty of Awesome Tenured Professors, too.

My friend ended up posting the rest of her story on Facebook about the undergrad who read three papers in an hour. Instead of rolling her eyes at the student’s overconfidence, she sat down with the student, guided her through the process of reading and understanding journal articles, and reassured her that it’s OK to ask a lot of questions. It was the mature approach, and maybe it even set the student on the right path for the rest of her scientific career. We can all learn from her example.

Well, some of us can. Not me. I’m awesome.

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