The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Undergraduate “advising”

Sometimes, being a grad student means that you are perceived by undergrads as being something like A Person With Knowledge and Authority. They assume that you’re someone who has seen things and done stuff and, rightly or wrongly, that you might be more approachable (or perhaps simply “safer”) than a professor if they’ve got something they need to get off their chest.

So, every now and then, an undergrad lingers at the end of class or finds me in my lab, not to talk about their course work, but to chat more generally about their schooling, their interests, and the next steps they’re considering in their academic careers. Sometimes my role is simply that of a sympathetic ear (“I have no clue why I’m here or what I’m doing with my life.”); sometimes it’s that of someone with experience (“What things did you do to help you get into grad school?” “What’s it like working with so-and-so?”); and other times it’s that of an advice-offerer (“What should I be looking for in a future advisor/job opportunity/grad program?” “How can I make my resume better?”)

I’m always flattered when I’m approached by these students, but I’m also always hyper-aware that they’re likely actually LISTENING to what I tell them, so I have to choose my words carefully and be certain that they understand that THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE IS THE OPINION OF ONE GRAD STUDENT ONLY, AND DOES NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF OTHER, BETTER, SANER, MORE EXPERIENCED PEOPLE.Despite feeling unnerved over having young people actually care about what I have to say, I do my best to encourage them in their efforts and help them explore different options for positive actions they can take to help them reach their goals.

I also think it’s important to be honest with them about the nature of graduate studies and what it’s like to do research.  Many undergrads don’t really understand what it means to Do Science, so it’s hard for them to wrap their heads around what a future as a scientist might look like.

I get that. I had no idea what it meant either when I was in their shoes.  I was just a really, REALLY lucky schmuck who, in her third year of a B.Sc., was taken under the wing of a professor who saw potential in a student who got easily geeked out over interesting natural minutae. And bugs. (Especially bugs).

This professor offered me a position in her lab to do an undergrad research project in my fourth year.  It was my first real exposure to proper research.  I applied for and was awarded my first research grant; I designed and executed a study involving both field and lab work; I learned how to deal with the literature; and I wrote a paper that was eventually published.  I liked the experience so much that I stayed on and did my M.Sc. under her supervision.  Had she not taken the time to guide me through the process and to show me how things worked (the good, the bad, and the ugly), I might not be where I am today.

So, when an undergrad asks about Doing Science, I usually tell them something like this: “Doing science means spending a lot of time thinking about what question you want to answer. Then you spend a lot of time reading about what other people have done, and what they have discovered. Then you do experiments and collect data, either in the field or the lab. I consider myself lucky: I get to spend at least a few weeks every year in the field.  Yes, only a few weeks. A couple of months at most. The rest of my time is spent in the lab, analyzing samples, entering data into spreadsheets, doing statistical tests, reading more (and reading MORE) and writing. Then hopefully I’ll publish my results.  Then I start over.”

They’re usually surprised (and often dismayed) that Doing Science does NOT look like being David Attenborough. But they’re also usually grateful to have been given that insight.  More often than not, they’re still interested in trying it out, either as a volunteer or during the summer as an assistant.  Whenever possible, I’ll try to steer them in the direction of an opportunity, if I know of any. I even took on a volunteer of my own this term; he’s working with me in my lab, and it gives me great satisfaction to see a young person showing interest AND talent, and that I’m able to give him a useful outlet for both.

What do you all think? How do you approach advice-giving when it comes to undergrads? How do you perceive your role in these kinds of situations? Have you ever regretted the advice you gave? Have you ever wished you’d done more? Is there such thing as being “too honest”?

(Cross-posted at

8 responses to “Undergraduate “advising”

  1. Bug Girl March 5, 2012 at 6:25 PM

    I think the biggest stumbling block for undergrads is not understanding how profoundly different graduate school is from being an undergraduate. Here! A helpful chart! 😀

    Having given undergraduate advice for…oh dear. Longer than you have been alive?
    Really, they will take what you tell them in, but will mix it with their own preconceptions and other’s advice. You aren’t as influential as you think. The best thing you can do is what you are already doing: show you care and listen 🙂

  2. TGIQ March 5, 2012 at 6:34 PM

    Oooh, that’s a great chart! And great post! Thanks for the awesome link! Also, I’m glad I’m probably not screwing up anybody’s life by opening my trap. 🙂

  3. dragonflywoman March 6, 2012 at 12:13 AM

    I personally don’t sugar coat things and don’t worry too much about being overly honest with students who ask me for advice or information about grad school/being a scientist. I make sure that they’re aware that whatever I tell them is based on MY experience and might not be applicable to every situation, but I tell them what they want to know, good or bad. I love being a grad student and a scientist and my enthusiasm pours out of me, but I also don’t want to make anyone think that grad school is this beautiful, perfect experience and that they’ll love every second of it because that’s not true. I can guarantee that at some point they’re going to have problems – problems with colleagues/advisors/committees, problems with research, problems with money, etc. I think it does students a disservice to hide those bad sides of the experience from them. If they know what they’re getting into and walk into the experience with their eyes wide open, I think they are better equipped mentally to deal with the challenges that are part of the job. But that’s just me. I’m interested to see what other people have to say!

    • TGIQ March 10, 2012 at 9:55 AM

      Great points! I think we can naturally encourage students simply by being our normal enthusiastic selves – that alone can speak volumes about how great the grad experience can be…IF it’s something you really love doing. Undergrads who can see parts of themselves in the behaviour we model might then recognize that it could be a good avenue for them to pursue. Conversely, those who say “I don’t get it” might realize that they are more interested in other types of work.

  4. stevenhamblin March 6, 2012 at 6:32 AM

    I usually make it pretty clear that if you’re going to be in grad school, it has to be because science is something you want to do so badly that you’re willing to give up a lot of things to get it; things like a good income, a normal social life, a standard of living that matches your friends (who will go on to have homes and families well before you, if that’s what you’re interested in). I tell them that if you’re the kind of geek who gets off on science then there is no better place that you can spend your time, but if you’re considering grad school because you just can’t think of anything better to do after undergrad then there’s a significant chance that it will end very badly.

    Having said that, I’m not a fan of the “if you’re not in the lab 24 hours a day, you’re not a proper scientist” speech; I firmly believe that what we do is a *job*, damnit, not a religious calling. But it’s a job that compensates us in one way (the emotional high of science) while failing to compensate us in others (money, time, and fame), so you’d better be ready for the trade-off.

    To be fair, I acquired a bit of a scary reputation…:-)

    I also really like your focus on undergraduate experience. Not only is it a great tool for them to have when they apply for grad school, but a taste of the real thing is a good way to weed out the True Nerds from the passing interest…

    • TGIQ March 10, 2012 at 9:52 AM

      I agree with you on all of this. Going to grad school because you don’t know what else to do with yourself is probably not a good idea. I don’t necessarily think the same goes for undergrad programs, though. I totally get that an 18-year-old might not have a CLUE what to do with themselves. I think that a general arts or science program, with the option of electives, is a great way to explore, learn about your options, and figure out your interests.

      I would NEVER tell anyone that 24-hrs-a-day scientists are the only “real” scientists. I actually feel bad for people like that. It’s great to love what you do, but what a narrow life that would be! There are other interests, people, hobbies, places to see, visit, experience…than just one’s lab. I’m really lucky that my own supervisor is a proponent of the “have a life” ideal. He’s got a family, hobbies and other interests that he actively pursues, and encourages his students to do the same. 🙂

  5. Katie March 8, 2012 at 10:35 AM

    Crystal, I’ve really enjoyed your posts about your grad experience. Yours, Bug Girl’s, and The Dragonfly Woman’s have been very helpful for me ( I’m still undecided, but I do know I want to get back that passion I once experienced for work. Last year I was thinking about going back for a MS studying not insects (my BS was in Entomology) but salamanders. Then I realized I didn’t actually have any questions about them; I just wanted to legally raise them under the guise of research. I’m not sure if I have the self confidence to do “real science.” Thank you for your blog!

    • TGIQ March 10, 2012 at 9:42 AM

      Katie, thanks for the kind words. I understand where you’re coming from. I just wasn’t passionate about my work before, and I couldn’t imagine carrying on that way in the long term. It’s a difficult and kind of scary place to be.

      I think the self-confidence thing is a common problem for many of us – you’ve probably read my ranting about the “impostor syndrome” issue in science/academia/with students. Most of us feel like frauds, even if we’re actually good at what we do. I think ultimately, the love of the work overrides the fear and self doubt 🙂

      If, though, research isn’t really something you’re passionate about, grad school could be a bit of a slog, and not get you where you ultimately want to be. There might be better avenues that you can pursue that would allow you to do something more interesting to you, without the research bit (or even perhaps not being directly responsible for coming up with research questions, i.e., being a PI – rather, a research assistant job might be more interesting, where you would get to do fun hands-on stuff with the study organisms and collect data).

      If you’re not really sure what you want to do, sometimes it’s helpful to simply try out a few things (if it’s feasible, economically and time-wise). It can help in terms of allowing you to discover new options that you weren’t aware of, and also helps you weed out the things that really aren’t as interesting as you may have thought. This approach helped me a lot when I was an undergrad (trying out many different classes led to me transitioning from arts to science), and again between grad degrees (trying out different jobs helped me realize that my real career interests and goals were not being met and that I’d have to take action to make sure they were). It can be really high-risk (i.e. quitting a job to try out a new school program) but the payoff can be equally high.

      I think the important thing right now is that you’re doing your research and thinking about it. All of that work will eventually culminate in action – if you give yourself permission to pursue your interests and be a little brave 🙂 I wish you luck with everything!

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