Tips for Working with an Undergraduate Research Advisor

I hope this post demystifies some of the expectations and interactions that can be unfamiliar or intimidating to undergraduate research students involving PIs (principal investigator… a fancy word for research advisor). Below is some of the advice I’ve given to various Cred Lab members at Wellesley about the best ways to navigate the student-PI relationship. These suggestions are not designed to make you a perfect advisee (I was/am not) and I do not address serious advisor-advisee problems like harassment or abuse.

The Cred Lab is an interdisciplinary CS lab at Wellesley College, an undergraduate-only liberal arts women’s college. While this document was originally written in spring 2019 with the Cred Lab lab in mind, I hope that it may be helpful for other undergraduate researchers. Of course, your PI may have more/less structure already in place than what I assume below and there are often many valid ways to interact with a PI.

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.

It’s expected that you don’t know anything. Undergraduate research is a relatively unique experience because (especially when you initially join the lab) you are being paid (at least at Wellesley) to acquire new skills and knowledge. Helping your advisor produce publications is important, but for your first couple of semesters in the lab, you will spend most of your time learning new things and only a fraction of your time working directly on a publication.

I strongly recommend reading the articles your PI explicitly (or offhandedly) suggests you should read. These will be extremely beneficial in helping you understand the goals/work of the lab.

Feedback is normal. Research involves (constructive) criticism. You aren’t being graded, so your PI will sometimes tell you (often face-to-face) when something needs to be done differently (i.e. you did it incorrectly the first time). This is normal. Many students are not accustomed to receiving direct constructive criticism from a professor, but the feedback is an important part of learning how to do research. Try to take as much of your PI’s feedback in stride as possible.

Respond to your PI’s emails/Slack messages. If the email is addressed to you, you should always reply (even if your response is “Will do” or Thanks”). Advisor expectations vary, but my rule of thumb is to respond within 24 hours on weekdays. Sometimes, you will fail to meet this expectation, and that’s ok.

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.

Oh no! I screwed [code/task] up. We all make mistakes. Research is not like class. There is no lecture, there are often no examples to base your work on, so you will definitely make lots of mistakes. It’s ok. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but fix them once you find them! If you have trouble fixing the mistakes, ask your lab mates or PI for help.

I spent all week working on a task, and now my PI has changed directions. This can be frustrating and disorienting, but you should (almost always) go with the flow. The skills/data you acquired will be valuable in the future, so it wasn’t a waste of time. Research can be fluid, so sometimes work you completed is no longer relevant to a current project. Or, sometimes your PI’s priorities shift, due to an approaching deadline or a promising finding in another project. It is possible that you will come back to the work you previously completed. You should always document what you did (in your research journal!) because in a few weeks you won’t remember the details of your work.

I haven’t accomplished anything since the previous check-in. This is less than ideal, but your PI understands that you are a student and not a full-time researcher. However, you should ask yourself: was I busy or was I stuck on something and avoiding the work?

  • 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.

I want to co-author a paper. This is an ambitious goal! Your PI would love this. Writing a paper takes a ton of time and involves many moving parts. Your odds of co-authoring a paper dramatically increase once you have shown that you are a reliable lab member. Reliable lab members consistently meet deadlines and are responsive to feedback and email.

If you are considering graduate school, let your advisor know this. They will (hopefully) be faster to involve you with publications in progress.

I don’t know how to say “no” to my PI. I think this is a common problem for students. In fact, this was definitely the hardest thing for me to learn — and I’m far from perfect at it. Sometimes you just have to say no. Especially if you know that you don’t have the time (or energy!) to complete a task that week. It’s ok. Your advisor can find someone else to do it. I strongly believe it’s better to do a good job on the things you have time for and be honest about the things you will not be able to complete. I’ve been asked to provide some examples of how to say no:

  • 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.”

PI’s are not mind-readers (for better or worse). So, if you don’t want to do something, you have to say so. If you sign on to do something, your PI expects you to complete that work to the best of your ability. It is far better to say no at the outset than not follow through on the work later.

I walked out of a meeting with my PI and I don’t know what to do next. This happens to everyone. To minimize the chances of this happening again, in the future, take notes during your meetings (in your research journal). Then, five minutes before the meeting ends, make a point to briefly summarize what you have discussed and plan out your next steps. But, this isn’t helpful advice if the meeting is already over. First, write down a few thoughts about what you and our PI discussed. Do you have a couple of ideas of what you should be working on? It’s better to present your PI with a couple of options of things you think you should be doing rather than emailing her “I have no idea what to do next.” If really you have no idea what you are supposed to be doing, write an email saying “I enjoyed our discussion today about X. I’m not sure what my next steps are. Please let me know what you think makes the most sense for me to work on this week.”

I’m not sure if I can ask my PI for a letter of recommendation. You absolutely can. Writing letters is part of your PI’s job, so don’t be embarrassed.

Here’s how I would/have approached this with our PI: “I’m applying to opportunity X, which I’m excited about for reason Y. Would you be willing to write a letter on my behalf?” If they agree, provide them with a draft of your application essay and your resume.

I would love to improve this guide and am open to additional suggestions and feedback.

A sincere thank you to the Wellesley College Cred Lab PI, Professor Eni Mustafaraj, for seeing the value in this post and encouraging me to continue writing it. Thank you to all of the Cred Lab members who offered their thoughts. drew additional inspiration for this post from Evan Peck’s and Philip Guo’s excellent guides about undergraduate research.

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PhD student @ UC Berkeley ISchool. Politics junkie.

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