I'm a fairly new Assistant Professor at a 4-year university. As is often the case our teaching load is high and we are also expected to do research. Personally, I like both teaching and doing research.

  • The difficult part of it, however, is to attract the students to work in your lab (often on a voluntary basis) that will make it worth the time and effort needed to train them.
  • The other challenge is this: once you have a student that you clearly see has the ability to perform well (both intellectually and skill-wise to work in a lab), how do I motivate them to spend as much time as they can in the lab?

It's obviously not worth it when a student starts an experiment and then loses the motivation to come in in-between classes to make a measurement. It's my feeling that the students see it like this: "if I come in and do some work in the lab, then that's good and useful for the professor", but without the true engagement to learn something from the experiment, without the student having the curiosity and passion to follow-up, it becomes more like waste of time and money.

Obviously, I realize that I'm asking a lot. It's generally accepted that this kind of behaviour/motivation can be expected from a Ph.D. student, but not so much from an undergrad. Nonetheless, this is the situation that many professors are in since they only get to work with undergrads and are still expected (and genuinely want) to do exciting research. If I could, I would spend much more time in the lab myself, but it's just not always possible.

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    The difficult part... is to ... make it worth the time and effort needed to train them. IMO you're being totally unrealistic. Their productivity is simply not going to repay the effort you put in. That kind of net gain isn't going to happen even with first- or second-year grad students. If your school is asking you to do this, then they're asking you to do it as an educational service that benefits the students, with no expectation that it will generate anything beneficial to you. Related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/592/…
    – user1482
    Commented Jul 28, 2016 at 18:46
  • I disagree. There is plenty of good work that got published and that was done by undergrads collaborating with the faculty. Some are better at managing this, hence the question. Also, I didn't mean to say that the effort-return must be equal, but how to optimize it. Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 4:49

2 Answers 2


What are the students getting in return for this?

  • Experience/interesting work? Then it's fun, but don't ever expect them to treat it as more than a hobby or fun project.

  • Money or course credit: Then it's their job to show up and work. The will show up, or you will fire them / fail them.

  • Publication: are your students credited on the publication? Will doing this work build their CV and make it easier for them to get jobs, or accepted into grad studies?

Anything else seems to fall dangerously into "how can I turn undergrads into unpaid interns". They have their own classes to work on and their own lives to run, and doing experiments probably isn't what gets them out of bed every day.

Does your university have a "Capita Selecta" or "Project Course" or "Individual Study" option? If so, you could give your students course credit for their involvement in your work, in which case they would be obligated to show up. They would get enough out of their contribution that it would be worth their time.

It's generally accepted that this kind of behaviour/motivation can be expected from a Ph.D. student, but not so much from an undergrad.

Because the PhD student is being paid to be there, and the undergraduate isn't.

The takeaway

Being an undergraduate is hard. You've got 4-5 classes, all of whom want you to work like that class is the only one you're taking. You are probably having to work to pay your way through school, and you are trying to have enough leisure time that you don't go insane.

Your best way to get them interested is to take away one of these stressors: pay them (so they don't have to work), give them course credit (so they can take less classes), or treat it like leisure (so they can do something they enjoy casually).

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    I agree with you. In my university, the undergraduates can work with the professors in some projects, and the work is paid from the grants. The salary is not much, but it is something, and also they appear in the journal papers, which is important for the admission to the PhD.
    – Nikey Mike
    Commented Jul 27, 2016 at 8:40
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    Decades ago as an undergrad I had the opportunity to do research with a professor. I got 'independent research' course credit, got to do fun experimental and modeling work, got an APS March meeting talk, wrote junior and senior theses, and got a really good letter of recommendation to grad school out of it. No money, but all the above was worth far more than the money both at the time and in retrospect.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jul 27, 2016 at 16:02
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    What they can get from it: I would definitely put them on the publications that come out of the research, and I tell them that. Course credit is also possible, as well as pay. The curious thing, however, is that I've had a bad experience with paying a student. Even with the pay (15$/h) the student was just not coming in. I do write recommendation letters and I want to be able to write outstanding ones. My feeling is it's only useful to me as a Prof. when the student has a true curiosity in science and plenty of time to spent on it. Unfortunately, those are often the more privileged kids Commented Jul 28, 2016 at 3:14
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    @jmite: Maybe it's not only curiosity, but also ambition then, that i look for. But how to know a student has that? You're inaccurate in that it's the grunt work that discourages them. I try to do as much of that myself (like "dishes") and try to have them do the real science not just the boring stuff. Actually students sometimes seem to be more comfortable doing the menial work than doing experiments. So, maybe it's a confidence thing.. and sometimes also just "I wanna have the experience, but I don't want to work for it". Commented Jul 28, 2016 at 16:00
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    Your best way to get them interested is to take away one of these stressors: pay them — In my experience, paying students to do research at the undergraduate level only gets students interested enough to sign up for research, but doesn't do much of anything else that is of any value for me. I've found that the best undergrads for research are the ones who have long-term career goals already mapped out, and see that the research experience fits into that in some useful way.
    – Mad Jack
    Commented Jul 28, 2016 at 16:11

You have to relate this lab work with their theoretical knowledge which they acquired in their classes. In your lab, do the experiments which are related to the theory classes of the students, so that students can understand how it can be implemented in pratical scenario. These classes will be different from theoretical classes and is more interactive and fun to work. In this manner, they get the chance to refine their skills and also get strong hold on their class subjects.

  • Good advice. I will think more of these connections. That might help. Commented Jul 28, 2016 at 16:12

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