Undergraduates from a Graduate Student Perspective

We know we’re weird. Graduate school is one time in life that it is acceptable, almost expected, that one is weird. Guess what? So are undergraduates. Actually, as a subspecies, work-study students are the least weird of the undergraduates. Your work-study position is usually a well-defined job, and you are task-oriented in the way jobs require; graduate students tend to skip from one thing to another, and go from completely unfocused to really, really focused in the blink of an eye.

As a graduate student, I have hired and worked with many work-study students. Some have been awful (not invited back the next semester), some have been good, and some have been excellent. We graduate students depend on work-study students a great deal more than you may realize. You are an extremely valuable resource.

But that makes it sound as if you are robots, carrying out routine tasks. We realize that you are working in the lab for experience, and we try to give it to you. One approach is to give you a great deal of experience on one task. Another approach is to gradually increase the responsibilities of work-study students as your unique skills become apparent. One particular student of mine comes to mind. He knew how to work with computers, pretty much better than I did, and what he didn’t know, he could figure out. He’s now running our ERP lab.

The willingness to ask questions and to learn new things are two of the best skills to have. You come into the lab with no experience – after all, gaining experience is what you’re there for. Over time, you learn how to run subjects, analyze data, work with the computers, etc. The way to learn is through interactions with graduate students. We remember how we felt when we were undergraduates. We are there to answer questions, explain tasks, answer questions, learn new tasks along with you, and answer the same questions again, until you, and we, are satisfied that you know what you’re doing. We try to be less scary than faculty. We may even share our pizza with you.

My best suggestion to work study students is this: use graduate students as a resource of your own. Graduate students’ behavior can be shaped. Ask us questions – lots of them. Ask us about the projects you are doing in our lab, other projects in the lab, other projects that interest you. Ask us about grad school, good classes to take, what we know about the professors and graduate students that teach them. Be interested in what you are doing. That brings out graduate students’ innate need to explain. And besides, if you are not interested in what you are doing, you have the wrong work-study job. Try to learn as many things as your lab has to offer. Ask us to introduce you to faculty members, so they know your face and your name. Use us as the link between yourself and the faculty member of the lab in which you work, so that your letter of reference is detailed and rich in information about you and your abilities.

Working in a lab as an undergraduate is a situation that benefits you and the graduate students in so many ways. I need to go thank all the work-study students that were willing to put out the effort to gain experience in my lab. And yes, no matter how much you shape our behavior, we’ll still be weird.

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