Working in a research lab with a diverse group of people and under the guidance/management of a professor can be a foreign experience. How can you make the most of your local research community and set yourself up for success with your research advisor? These are a few tips I’ve learned along the way, having exposure to multiple labs and management styles.
- Your research advisor serves multiple roles. Not only does this person commonly provide funding for your research and tuition, and serve as your employer/supervisor, but they also serve in the role as your research advisor (sometimes called “mentor”). Their key function is to provide you, the student, guidance along the path of research activities and to prepare you for a future as a researcher. Some research advisors may not fit the role of what we think of as a traditional “mentor”. In those cases, seek other faculty members as mentors while working with your research advisor. It is encouraged to have multiple mentors and sources of feedback as you develop as a researcher and prepare for your future career.
- Lab management is approached very differently by professors. Some prefer to have low numbers of students while others have large labs with a hierarchical system in place to manage the different levels of students (undergrads, masters, doctorals). Some professors have weekly individual meetings in addition to weekly group lab meetings, while others may only have monthly individual meetings. This is an important consideration when selecting a lab to join. You must consider your level of interaction needed with your advisor. If s/he is not giving you as much time as you need, be sure to communicate this to them and request a meeting.
- Make the most of your lab community. Research labs are often comprised of a variety of students from different countries, backgrounds, undergraduate degrees and Alma Maters. Labs will have a mix of undergraduate and graduate students. For doctoral students, this often becomes your new home away from home for the next 4-6 years. Countless hours will be spent in this environment. Be sure to reach out to your lab mates and spend some “team building” / “get-to-know-you” time with them. Sometimes this happens naturally, other times it takes effort, but it’s worth it. It will make for a much more collegial and supportive environment. Also, be open to helping each other. Often research is an individual effort and can become competitive. This is your time to learn, from others as well as your advisor, and to share and teach others as well so they can learn from you.
- Advisor/Student Expectations. It is vital to have a clear understanding of your advisor’s role, their responsibilities and what you can expect from them. In the same way, you must know your responsibilities and what your advisor expects from you. Some professors and/or departments have implemented a student/advisor contract that each person signs. This is the surest way to prevent misunderstandings and even abuse of the student through inappropriate tasks assigned or causing a delay in graduation. If your school doesn’t use one, feel free to ask your advisor to sign one with you.
Examples of advisor/student contracts:
Other resources on establishing a successful relationship with your advisor: