CAREER COLUMN

Undergraduate students can be a boon to your lab

Many undergraduates in the natural sciences will never take part in research, despite a willingness to learn. But their presence can teach others how to lead.
Benjamin Tsang is the laboratory manager for the Gerlai Behavioral Genetics Research Laboratory at the University of Toronto in Canada.
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Scientists working in GMO laboratory

Undergraduates can be a huge advantage for a lab willing to invest in them.Credit: Hero/Getty

A lack of experience, knowledge and practical intuition — the ‘research mindset’ — is just one reason some scientists give for why they don’t want undergraduate students working in their laboratories. Almost by definition, universities are equipped with a deep pool of young, intelligent individuals keen to gain skills and demonstrate their worth. Despite this, there is a stereotype in academic circles that having undergraduate students in the lab is simply too time consuming for the principal investigator to make it worthwhile.

Yes, undergraduates often require careful attention, training and patience. They can make mistakes, and some might not stay long enough to warrant full training. These are all factors to consider if you’re thinking about taking on undergrads in your lab.

Yet, fostering a successful group of undergraduates in your lab can change your research life forever.

Here’s one example: it can be a significant challenge to explain particular aspects of your research to someone who’s just starting their studies. It’s easy to see this as a hindrance, but the challenge comes with a hidden reward: it forces you to learn how to convey information in a simple and understandable fashion. This in itself is hugely important for the career development of any scientist.

Mentor training

These sorts of development opportunities are not limited to senior scientists. Having undergraduates in the lab encourages graduate students to learn how to train and collaborate with younger colleagues. It’s a reciprocal process: graduate students teach undergraduates how to do research and, in doing so, gain valuable experience in training students in a focused mentor–trainee environment.

Dedicated undergraduates can also speed things up. Of course, training initially takes time and will slow down the work, but as students get a handle on specific procedures, they can be just as successful as any other person in the lab. No working scientist would ever say ‘no’ to two or three extra pairs of hands helping to run experiments.

You won’t always end up with a group of rising stars. Some students will not work out. As with graduate students, not all of them will stay enthusiastic, and not all will do good work. But another advantage of having undergraduates in the lab is that they are not bound to you. They are free to explore further if their interests align with yours, and you have the freedom to let them go if they’re not advancing your progress. Those who are willing to put in the effort to learn and grow will stay, and those who lack the drive will eventually leave.

Patience is worth it

Just remember that although undergraduates can be a positive asset to a lab, you must take the time and patience to train them and appreciate their work in a professional and friendly manner.

Be there to guide them when they require assistance, but also trust them to take responsibility, and allow them the freedom to operate and run particular aspects of the research they’ve been trained in.

Always remember that they are working to improve and learn. Keep them motivated with different tasks, and encourage them en route. From the undergraduate’s perspective, they simply want to take part in your experiments in a useful and meaningful way.

For me, the benefits of having undergraduates in the lab outweigh the negatives, especially with the added reward of watching them grow from students to junior researchers. And chances are that the ones who stick around will be your next generation of graduate students.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07665-7

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at naturecareerseditor@nature.com.

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