Tips for Working with an Undergraduate Research Advisor

General Advice

Good communication is key. You should frequently communicate your progress, expectations, and goals to your advisor. This does not have to be via email (although, for me, it often was). I recommend keeping a log of your most recent work and any non-urgent questions on top (I call this a research journal). The research journal, which can be a Google doc shared with your advisor, provides an easy way for both you and your PI have an up-to-date record of your progress. An added benefit of this approach is that the non-urgent questions in your research journal can help guide the conversation in your one-on-one meetings.

Common scenarios

I committed to doing something by a certain date, but there’s no way it’s going to get done by then. We’ve all been there (in fact, sometimes your PI misses deadlines, too!). The only time this is a big deal is if you are assisting with a paper. In this case, tell your PI ASAP. If you give enough notice, it’s not a big deal. When you are explaining that you won’t be able to complete X by a given date, provide a more realistic estimate of when the work will actually be completed.

  • If you were too busy, I would send your PI an email at least 24 hours before your meeting and say something like: “Unfortunately, I had a really busy week and was unable to make substantial progress. I have some free time on [day] and I will make sure to get [agreed upon task] done. Do you think it still makes sense to meet on [original meeting day]?”
  • If you were avoiding the work because you are stuck, keep the meeting and explain where you are stuck. Talk it through with them.
  • If you’re too busy: “Wow. This sounds like a really exciting project/idea/task, but because of the time of the semester/personal issues etc. (it’s ok to be vague!), I don’t think I will be able to work on it right now. Can I instead focus on X (whatever you had previously been working on)?”
  • If you aren’t interested in the task: Honestly, there are times when you will have to do boring or uninteresting tasks (hopefully, this only occurs occasionally!). However, if your PI is giving you a choice, say: “I’m really enjoying what I’m working on now. I would rather focus my energy on X for now.”

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Emma Lurie

Emma Lurie

PhD student @ UC Berkeley ISchool. Politics junkie.