In addition to mentoring a research student, this summer I also volunteered to be an “area coordinator”. The idea is that I serve as a second mentor for a group of about ten students roughly in the same area of research (psychology or cognitive science), to be available for students who may not be part of a lab. In practice, however, most students on campus over the summer know others who are also doing research, so they have social support outside of the area group.
This left me with about an hour a week with these students to fill. The role I decided to take is to introduce students to being a researcher – while the advisor of their specific project focuses on whatever subject they are exploring, I can instead talk about obstacles in doing research. Early on, as students got used to summer research, I talked about finding the right relationship with their advisor. I drew partially from the grad school experiences of my own and of other students, but also from Handelsman et al.’s Entering Mentoring: A Seminar to Train a New Generation of Scientists. The pamphlet was a great resource, as it contained reflection questions for both mentors and mentees. One such question, “Would you like to be able to spend more time with your mentor?”, was one for which different students at Michigan had different preferences. Discussing this question with the students likely led to me asking for semi-weekly check-ins, breaking free of the mold from grad school.
Around week three of I spent one hour talking about the administrative details of research – how to filter through the deluge of papers, how to stay organized with all the findings, as well as how to remain (relatively) stress-free. I had several insights here. First, it wasn’t until that point when I realized students might never have faced this amount of reading before. While a social science course may assign a hundred pages a night, the skills for skimming one long source is different from selecting from hundreds of sources. Strangely, I am not sure where I learned to filter through papers either, and I’ve never asked students to do it as part of a course. In fact, this realization came in useful recently, as I am mentoring a student for their comprehensive project and I had to talk them through this process.
It wasn’t clear at first how useful it would be for me to talk about work-life balance. Summer research has lower expectations and is not as all-consuming as grad school. I think it was ultimately useful to bring it up, though, as I’ve heard from multiple students that they feel under pressure simply from not absorbing the material as quickly as they would like – even if their expectations may not be realistic to begin with. Depending on the student, I have found that they sometimes will push themselves to spend more time on the problem, when taking a break may be a more productive path forward. Again, I am learning how to adjust the reins for each student, and when to reach out and offer assistance.
One topic that I didn’t think would be interesting, but which occupied one meeting, was the career path of an academic. More than half of the students in my area group are considering grad school, so we naturally spent time on the application process and grad student life. What caught their attention instead was my personal path to my current position, and what the next couple years would look like for me. In this case, students had no real need to understand the tenure and promotion system, but simultaneously I am also surprised that I have never explained this topic before.
The final thing I will say about this experience is that, although I tried to spend time on technical writing, I did not have any material that would let me do so. I resorted to advising that students read through The Elements of Style, but that seems inadequate and weak compared to critiquing real writing. From my summer student, I do now have the full history of a piece of writing as it goes through the editing process, but I still lack the pedagogical content knowledge to teach writing to more than one student at a time. Since I eventually intend to teach first-year writing, this is a shortcoming I would like to rectify.
Although I enjoyed being an area coordinator this summer, I am not sure I would do it again. If I were to reprise the role, I would like to define more concrete goals for the students, as opposed to the ad-hoc curriculum I created this summer. The rewards of leading the sessions is not quite worth the time I put in, and given my overall inability to find balance in my research, I should probably spend more effort there instead.