How You Doin'?


How You Doin'?

— from the Researcher's bench

One of the reassuring things about taking an undergraduate lab course is knowing exactly what you need to do to earn the letter grade you want. For most instructional labs, you can calculate your grade at anytime to know whether or not you’re excelling, and opt for the extra credit assignments if needed.

But in a professional research lab, performance isn't necessarily tied to a letter grade, and whether or not a student is excelling isn't always clear cut. Your research mentor doesn’t officially grade the quality of your agarose gel or require you to create three cloning molecules by a certain date. (Although, he does form an opinion of the overall quality of your lab work.)

Even an A on your transcript isn’t typically enough feedback to determine if you’re excelling by your mentor’s standards. For many undergrads involved in research, a letter grade of A indicates that the department’s requirements were fulfilled, or that they completed the objectives of the research contract, if one was signed.

So where does that leave you, an undergrad, working to get the most out of your research experience and hoping to earn a strong letter to support your grad, med or professional school applications? Although asking your mentor about your performance is a good start, and something you should do on occasion, some mentors are inexperienced in giving feedback and others might not provide a direct evaluation if it’s negative.

Therefore, you also might need to consider your overall interactions with your research mentor to determine if you’re on the right track. The categories below may seem insignificant, but they are meaningful stepping stones for any undergraduate researcher. If any of these become part of your research experience, it’s definitely a good sign. (But keep in mind they are not the sole indicators of performance.)

When you’re asked to do more

Being asked to take on extra responsibility is always a good sign. For example, if your research mentor starts asking you to drop by the lab for a few minutes outside of your regular lab hours to start a culture, or quickly set up an experiment you’re on the right track. Even If you're asked to assist on a side experiment or prepare stocks that your labmates use is a good sign because it means that your efforts bring value to the lab team. And I assure you none of your labmates will use a stock if they don't trust the ability of the person who prepared it.

When your mentor becomes your coach

If your research mentor stops giving you all the answers to your questions, and instead coaches you through a discussion about how to troubleshoot a technique or interpret a result, you have a reason to celebrate. No matter how many students a mentor has trained, it is always easier for her to simply give an answer than help a student reason through their own question. Even though you might find it frustrating, and wish she would just give you the answer, the more often she coaches you the more faith she has in your analytical and creative thinking skills. This doesn't mean that your mentor will always choose to coach you, but if she didn't do it in the beginning of your research experience it's a good sign when she starts.

When you’re asked to train other undergraduates

This is a big one. If your research mentor asks you to help train another undergraduate, you're being asked to step into a leadership role. (In some labs, undergrads might teach a grad student or professional researcher how to do a procedure.) Even if you're teaching someone how to complete a research-related task such as racking pipette tips, or taking care of biohazard waste it matters because it generally means that your research mentor believes you work well with labmates. Being asked to show, teach, or demonstrate is an important stepping stone and not every undergrad in the lab is asked to take on this role.

So the next time your mentor asks you to do extra work, or guides you through an analysis instead of giving you the answer, know that she finds value in what you do and you are proving to be a reliable labmate.

And keep in mind that even if your research mentor doesn’t write your evaluation letter, it’s likely that she will have a significant influence on what goes in it.