Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Motivating Students

Thanks for all your comments on my last post. I agree that pondering fools method is the best method of adviser selection, with support for students for the first few years. Unfortunately, Center grants that support students like that are hard to come by and unlikely to be sufficient to accommodate our entering class of ~ 20 students. Thus, we are forced to explore other options. I'm not sure what the answer is (a department endowment?), but I can say this year I got one, very enthusiastic student, and I think I'm happy with that.

Next, I have a question for you. I have a postdoc who has been working for me for about a year. She came to me primarily because her husband is in the department and she wanted to stay with him. She liked my research and had worked in a tangential, but not closely related field to my own. She has been doing good work, but the project has not been working well. I think that what we have been getting is interesting because if we can describe why it doesn't work it could be a nice, influential paper. A lot of people are trying to make the same thing, and everybody except one group seems to be having the same problems, but no one has studied it in detail. However, she is beginning to lose heart. I think she sees that it is not working and wants to radically switch directions to something else with more promise. I want her to investigate the failure more thoroughly and publish what we have so it is not lost. I recently got back from two conferences where we presented this work and it was very well received by the audience. I really think we should publish.

My question is how do I keep this student motivated? I know that it can be difficult when things don't work and I want her to appreciate the beauty and possibilities of the project. I feel that she has lost interest and am not sure how to get it back. Any suggestions?

9 Comments:

At 4:51 PM , Blogger Propter Doc said...

Well, as someone in a very similar position, I think you need to address her main concern. Research success and publications. Assuming she wants to do research after her postdoc (and many postdocs who follow spouses still do), she probably feels that positive publications of good results are a more worthwhile goal.
If you can convince her that a detailed study of her system is going to give a meticulous, gutsy and good publication, motivation should follow. I think it is a gutsy move, trying to figure out why something doesn't work, but not necessarily desirable for someone who's career hangs in the balance.

 
At 6:11 PM , Blogger CAE said...

Is there any way she could be given a side project that is likely to generate fast results, while continuing to work on the original problem too? I always had at least 2 projects on the go during my postdoc years and found that it kept me motivated. If one project was stalled, at least the other one would be moving forwards!

 
At 7:08 PM , Blogger EcoGeoFemme said...

Can you provide support (your time, a tech's time, extra analyses, whatever) to make it go faster?

 
At 10:54 AM , Blogger ScienceWoman said...

Wow. You've already gotten great responses from the previous commenters. I'd second the suggestion of giving her a side project that seems likely to generate positive results soon. I know you are busy, but if you want to see the post-doc's work published (and all that is left is writing?), can you contribute to the writing yourself? That alone may be enough to convince your post-doc of the merits of publishing negative results.

 
At 2:57 PM , Blogger PonderingFool said...

In addition to the suggestions offered by everyone else, I would add maybe a time table for trying to get the data to get it published. Sometimes the greatest killer of motivation is not having any sense of how long you will be working on something. The hopeless feeling that it is never going to end, there is no light at the end of the tunnerl, etc. Still amazes me how many grad students become more productive once their thesis committees give them the signal that the end is near.

 
At 7:22 PM , Blogger Jennie said...

Wow ponderingfool you so speak to what I feel
"Sometimes the greatest killer of motivation is not having any sense of how long you will be working on something."
I though this post was interesting because I was aiming to get motivation from my adviser today. It was a helpful meeting but I still don't see the light at the tunnel and it's depressing. He said lots of nice things none of which were, "yeah lets hurry this up so you can graduate"

 
At 9:13 PM , Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

When I was in a similar situation research-wise, The Boss sat me down for ~an hour and hashed out a detailed outline for the manuscript. Just getting a figure list down with your post doc might help her see how close she actually is to getting a paper out.

 
At 6:55 PM , Blogger ScienceGirl said...

Whatever you do, don't give her a pep-talk. Only a real change or plan (lots of great options in the comments here alone!) will reassure her of your commitment to her success, and that there are many ways to get there.

P.S. It is great to see advisors who care as much as you do!

 
At 10:26 AM , Blogger PhD Mom said...

Thanks for all your comments. I ended up calling a meeting with that student and another student working on a similar project. We talked about the work as it stands and agreed that we would do the very few experiments left to publish it in a field specific journal and then she could move on. The other student will be brought in to help so that we can do this as quickly as possible. I think that this is a workable plan, but time will tell.

 

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