Organizing Your Group: Training Students One at a Time is a Waste of Time
Earlier, I had some posts on organizing your research group (here and here) and mentoring students (here and here). I have mentioned that you can train students in a bootcamp setting. Here, I will describe the general method of a bootcamp and the benefits of group training. I am happy to give our examples of specific topics I cover in my bootcamp, but you can probably think of your own for your own research group.
What is the Bootcamp? Each year, the same time of year that is convenient, I run a 5-day bootcamp to train students in all the activities of my lab (I do experiments, in case you couldn’t tell). The camp is set for 9am – 5pm Monday through Friday for one week. The number of contact hours in the week-long course in the same as those for a normal course for an entire semester. Thus, the students get a concentrated dose of lab training. We start with how to keep a lab notebook and go through all the important experimental techniques needed to work in the lab.
Some days end early, but others go late. No day is really 9am – 5pm. This is to teach them the lesson that science does not proceed 9-5. It is a strong lesson. The training includes basic bench work needed for the lab, performing certain routine tasks specific to our lab, and performing new experiments and data analysis.
Benefits to Students: I train students in cohorts in the bootcamp – at least 3-6 at a time. This gives them a group of students who all went through the camp at the same time. I make it fun for them. I put them in groups. They work together in small groups to answer questions during morning “lectures” and to perform experiments in hands-on afternoon “experiments.” I make t-shirts for each team. They typically have a theme – such as Scooby Doo – and each group is a different character and color. The over-sized t-shirts act as lab coats for the week.
After the students take the bootcamp, they are considered trained and ready to start their own research projects. They take off with a lot of confidence knowing how to work in the lab, who the people are who can help them, and having a set of students to turn to for simple questions (their cohort). The next year, students who are still around and took the camp already are welcome to join again, or serve as TAs to train the next cohort.
Benefits to Me: Saving time, saving money, saving effort. As the title says, training students one-at-a-time is a huge waste of time. By training many students at once, I save a lot of time. I found, when I first started my lab, that only 1 in 4 or 5 students would pan-out. Unfortunately, you never know who those students will be before you begin training. By training all the students at the same time, I make sure to train the good with the bad. I save money because I can properly and personally train the students, and don’t have to leave the training to others, who might miss things or miscommunicate. Sometimes the TAs say incorrect things, but I try to be around to correct them immediately, which teaches both the bootcampers and the TAs. I save money by not paying bad students who don’t want to stay and by having more-respectful students. Although, at first, only about 1 in 5 students stayed and was productive, I have found the bootcamp and the cohort to be a powerful tool for recruiting and retaining students in the lab. Students who weren’t sure about research in the lab, decided to stay after having a lot of fun in the bootcamp. Thus, I am actually able to recruit more and better students.
So, what about you? Are you still training students one-at-a-time? Is it hit-or-miss? Do you have additional activities or improvements to be added to the bootcamp idea? If so, post or comment!