Teaching excellence is invariably driven by an instructor’s passion for the education of their students. My experience as an educator has led me to recognize the importance of building confidence and motivation while challenging my students with rigorous and exciting material. Conversely, educators who dryly dish out doctrine to note-taking students discourage student learning and do themselves and the students a disservice. My role as an instructor is to inspire students to set their expectations high and then help them reach their education goals by providing direct, practical, and enthusiastic support. I take pride in my students’ success and strive to help each one of my students attain his or her potential. A key to fostering this type of student development is to engage in an ongoing dialogue with the students, and I have found that nothing increases student motivation as much as a truly motivated instructor.
Inspiring students to challenge themselves and pursue their educational goals is one crucial element of effective teaching, but it is also important to teach lifelong learning skills for both inside and outside the classroom, such as the ability to think critically when approaching an unfamiliar problem. These principle skills will be incorporated not only into my classroom but also into my interactions with students interested in pursuing research. As an advisor, part of my role is to provide my researchers with the skills necessary to conquer difficult problems, such as digesting a highly technical research paper and communicating a complicated research topic.
Successful Student Research
In my experience, here are some keys to successful student research and mentoring. These are also my expectations for students that work with me. It is hard to write these with the correct tone. Read these with a smile, and always remember as your professor I’m always right, except when I’m wrong.
- It is very important to develop your professional communication skills. This takes many forms, but I expect all of my students to communicate with me on a daily basis during the summer and on a weekly basis during the semester (idly more than once). Whenever possible, this should consist of a brief face-to-face meeting. I also recommend that you keep a daily blog or journal to jot down notes. During our discussions, you should discuss the following: (i) What did you accomplish/learn yesterday? (ii) What is your current hurdle/challenge? (iii) What are your goals for today?
- But what if I get stuck? When do I know it is time to get help? These are not easily answered, or more specifically, the answer is it depends. First, let me talk about getting stuck. You will get stuck. I get stuck. Everyone gets stuck. What makes a successful scientists is how they react in these situations. You can get frustrated, or you can try to find out as much information and facts about your problem or situation. Check your assumptions. It’s usually an incorrect assumption about your code or your problem formulation or your configuration or well anything. Then if you’re still stuck after you have a list of demonstrable facts that you’ve verified and have learned about your problem, it is time to ask a colleague (i.e., me or someone else in the lab). That isn’t to say that sometimes you can’t just come on by and let off some steam about a particularly tricky problem. That’s one of my favorite things to do with colleagues who don’t mind hearing me think out loud. But it is just as important to work towards a solution in concrete steps that further your education and knowledge about the problem.
- Independence of thought. It is very important to me that you develop as an independent investigator. This is one of the primary reasons that has hopefully brought you to work with me. I don’t want students who look to me to tell them exactly what to do. I want to train students to anticipate problems and find better solutions to those problems than I could have come up. You’re ready to graduate when you can convince me that my proposed solution to a problem is destined to fail. This is one of the most difficult things to teach though, so when I let you struggle through a problem on your own, it is part of a broader diabolical plan to make you into super scientists.
Applying and joining the lab
The best and most straightforward way to join the lab is to take one of my courses. But that’s not always possible due to scheduling. The next best thing is to work on building your technical expertise in programming, statistics, mathematics, and all related subjects. I really enjoy working with students for multiple years, so please come and find me as early in your education as possible. We may not jump right into a project, but we can discuss how best to prepare for research. That brings me to my last point, which is to just come and talk to me. I’m always excited to talk about mentoring and research.