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Setting

I am currently an undergraduate student in chemistry and I have recently started working on an undergraduate research project in a known laboratory in the US. I am very passionate about the topic, however I have problems with my supervisor, who is a PhD student.

Problem description

When I came to the lab asking for a topic to work on, the Professor assigned me to one of their students, which appears to be common practice, so I did not question this. However, I found out later that my supervisor (the student) was the only person in the lab working on the topic, and that she herself had only started working on it not long ago. After several days in the lab, my supervisor has not revealed what the eventual goal of my project will be, and from the way she behaves (stressed out, impatient towards me asking questions, which is an additional problem), I suspect that she might not know herself (quote: "we'll figure out along the way"). This is severely frustrating. I am aware that research is an open-ended endeavour that might be changed as new situations arise, but I thought that undergraduate research should be something self-contained, with a clear goal and time-frame, and usually well-thought out by an experienced researcher? I am aware that one possibility to resolve these issues could be to simply talk to my supervisor. However, there appear to be some barriers, which leads me to my question.

Question

How can I approach the situation without ruining my standing in the laboratory and appearing like a complicated student, even though I am not? I would love to continue on this or a similar topic in this lab, but the current situation is very unpleasant for me.

I feel like I cannot talk to my supervisor directly as she seems impatient and stressed out, and at the same time inexperienced with supervising undergraduate students. I fear that this could make the experience even worse, with my supervisor getting angry at my criticism.

The other option I can conceive of would be to talk to my supervisor's supervisor, and ask for some kind of intervention from above. But this could also backfire in many ways, possibly making me look complicated and unwanted in the lab altogether.

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    I thought that undergraduate research should be something self-contained, with a clear goal and time-frame — Nope. Undergraduate research is still research. What you're describing is a class project. – JeffE Apr 18 '18 at 23:15
  • Are your peers having similar problems? How long have you been trying to work this out? How long is this pairing supposed to last? Have you ever communicated with her via email? Have you ever asked, "How can I help?" Are you willing to do some grunt work? – aparente001 Apr 19 '18 at 2:25
  • @aparente001 Yes, there few colleagues of mine who have been in the lab for much longer that have also complained about similar things regarding this supervisor (stressed out, not much time). I am relatively new in the lab, but I wanted to set things straight in the beginning. Regarding your other questions: email communication works well, and I do not mind simple tasks. – wwright Apr 19 '18 at 18:08
53

I'll be honest with you, remarking that this is only my opinion, by no means I'm right.

Undergrads are a pain to supervise.

Mostly because, in general, undergrads require a lot of "hand-holding" and training (proper research procedure and writing are not usually covered before that), which takes time (even worse if it is a good student that challenges you.... rewarding, but takes even more time).

You are right in thinking that undergrad research should be simple, self-contained, and well planned out. Properly planning stuff takes time, professors never have it. And simple means that the research is unlikely to have high impact.

I know several professors that don't accept undergrads simply because they think it is not worth the effort. The ones that do accept, pin them to a Ph.D. student (or a postdoc) and that's it. The Ph.D. students usually are busy, worried about their own things, and do not have the experience to deal with "underlings".

Yes, your project should be well defined, with clear goals and schedule. That never happens. Not as an undergrad, MS, Ph.D., postdoc, or professor. There might be a few unicorns around, but, usually, you have no idea where you are going. Ideally, you could use this opportunity to train the most important trait in a researcher: independence.

Instead of expecting to be handed goals and schedule, create them. It will be challenging for you, but you would learn how to do it, and get familiar with the field. Then you could go to the Ph.D. student and ask "Do you think this is a reasonable plan?" instead of "what should I do?". Worst case scenario, that plan can be a starting point for a better one. Bonus points if you include solutions to tangential problems of her research (stuff that would be cool/easy to do, but isn't a priority, so she would never do it herself).

Quoting a far better man, and professor, than myself:

"Be honest, be kind, be useful, be responsible, work hard, treat everybody with respect."

I'd advise you to go around the Ph.D. student only as last resort.

  • 6
    I wish I could upvote your answer a couple of more times. – YYY Apr 18 '18 at 10:11
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    "Yes, your project should be well defined, with clear goals and schedule. That never happens. Not as an undergrad, MS, Ph.D., postdoc, or professor. " There's some truth being told here. Academia isn't how they tell it in the story books - sorry I mean brochures/prospectuses. Upvoted, naturally. – Faheem Mitha Apr 18 '18 at 14:47
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    "Instead of expecting to be handed goals and schedule, create them." Yes, taking initiative is crucial to survival in academia and research. Important in the outside world, but crucial in academia. – Faheem Mitha Apr 18 '18 at 14:48
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    @Discretelizard I agree. In CS most undergrads are excellent in programming but terrible in the "rest" of research. Usually, they try to "sell" the results too hard (ignoring scenarios where the method doesn't work), skimp on the bibliographic review ("there is no work like mine"), in general, overwriting text that should be simple while underwriting text that should be complete... Gets worse when they don't really know English that well. Upside: ingrain those things into an undergrad, saves time in MS/ Ph.D. :) – Fábio Dias Apr 18 '18 at 15:41
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    Thank you for this insightful answer! Maybe I have been a bit naive. As you suggest, I will try to use this as an opportunity to learn. – wwright Apr 18 '18 at 16:42
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You correctly identified (i) that the solution is to communicate, and (ii) that the problem is that the grad student might be inexperienced in advising students, though probably qualified as far as the material is concerned. You've also correctly understood that research is often an endeavor that takes you where the data and insight takes you, and that that might be a different place than originally planned.

You're both adults, and in a sense colleagues because you're still starting researchers. Ask her whether it would be possible to have coffee to talk about your project. Get away from the lab so that both sides set aside 30 or 60 minutes without feeling that every minute spent on talking is a loss of time for something else. Brainstorm about what you're passionate about, what she thinks this could turn into regarding a project, and jointly come up with a timeline. If you want, have a bullet point list of things with you that you think you need to talk about.

  • Thank you for your thoughts! Unfortunately our schedule is very tight, and even when we did have breaks my supervisor did not really seem interested in social interactions. – wwright Apr 18 '18 at 16:41
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    The advice here is not to pursue "social interaction", but rather professional interaction. That requires clear, honest communications, which is sometimes best done outside the lab. – JeffE Apr 18 '18 at 23:18
  • @JeffE You are of course right. I am not a native speaker, and what I wanted to convey was that she does not seem approachable and that interactions outside the lab could be perceived by her as bothersome. – wwright Apr 19 '18 at 18:12
1

I suggest a combination (you may already be doing some or all of these things):

  • Try to make yourself useful

  • Assert yourself when your direct supervisor is disrespectful

  • Ask others in the department for tips

  • Do some reading to see if that allows you to propose a direction

  • If email is more comfortable than face to face communication, well, try to use email as much as possible

  • Collect your questions in a bunch so she can concentrate without a ton of interruptions

  • Negotiate regular opportunities for you to ask questions

  • Set yourself a time frame for the uncertainty. I can't suggest a specific timeframe because I don't know how long this project is supposed to last. Ask your supervisor for a preview of the time track for this project, i.e. when you should be achieving certain milestones, or how often you should check in with her for performance feedback (this will create an opening for you to slip in some self-evaluation, and by extension, an evaluation of the supervision she's providing). When that time comes, make a list of positives and things you've learned; and a list of specific types of support you need.

If it really doesn't feel like the right fit, let someone higher up know.

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