Organizing Your Group: Semester Reports
Although I have mentioned the semester report in prior posts (management, lab rules, management), I realize that I haven’t made it explicit what the report is for, what it asks for, and how I use it to manage the lab. First, I should say there are lot of ways to do something like this. I started having my students write reports after talking to a very senior WomanOfScience about how she organizes her group. She makes her students write monthly reports. I tried that, but it was too frequent for them and for me. I decided one per semester and one in the summer (3 per year) was a better rate for reporting. I give the students a specific deadline, usually September 1, June 1, and February 1. I also encourage them to take time away from performing new experiments so they can spend time reflecting and writing the report.
Q: Why do this? A: Pedagogy. As most of us are, I am an educator. I noticed that my students were not getting practice with their writing. We would have enough data for a paper, and they would freak out about having to write it. Or, they would write it very poorly. Sometimes they would not include information that they should (data, methods) in the paper because they literally forgot what they did. I decided that the students needed more practice and they needed to routinely recap what they did and their results before it all piled up. I also decided to use this report as a mechanism to help them plan ahead and to do a little self assessment.
Q: What? A: Specific questions. Unlike writing a paper that has a specific format, I wanted the report to be a historical recap of what the students did over the previous semester. I wanted them to think about what their plan had been, what they tried, what worked, what didn’t work, what they accomplished, and give them a place to think about the next 3-4 months. To do this, I ask them to address specific questions in their report. I paste in here the format I use:
- A list of goals that the student had for the previous semester/summer;
- A description of the experiments the student performed to reach those goals including:
- The reagents and methods used to perform experiments
- A description of any analysis you did including the programs you used and the metric you measured and why you measured them
- A description of the results you found (using words in paragraph form)
- Figures to illustrate the methods and results you found including images, timeseries of movie data, and plots of quantified data
- A description of what you think your data means and what the next steps might be
- A list of unmet goals;
- Any problems or issues that the student encountered in attaining those goals
- Any improvements made or ways that progress can be made faster
- A list of goals for the next semester/summer;
- Is this a reasonable amount of work?
- What milestones do you expect to meet and when?
- A personal statement that addresses the following:
- What is your personal career goal?
- How will your work in this lab help you to achieve that goal?
- What is your personal goal for completing your tenure in this lab? (If you plan to leave the lab eventually – most of you do!)
- What are your personal goals for achieving your timeline? What skills are needed? What milestones and achievements do you need to make along the way?
- A self-evaluation of your progress and work in the lab, what you have done well, and what you need to improve on. For this section, please consider your:
- Planning and completion of experiments
- Organization, interpretation and presentation of data (written & oral)
- Ability to think of “the next logical step” in your experimental design
- Time management and commitment to research
- Ability to work independently, troubleshoot & seek outside help when necessary
- Any new protocols developed over the last semester, typed, and as separate word documents. The protocols will be posted on the lab website for others to use.
Q: What do you do with these reports? A: Read and comment. I make all the spring reports due June 1, and I get a bunch in all around the same time. Then I have to spend some time reading and commenting. Sometimes I print them out, write comments on the papers, scan for my records, and give the comments back to the student. Other times, I write the comments in a word document and send that to the students. Interestingly, the part that the students are often most hung up on is their self-evaluation. Undergraduate students are especially hard on themselves often saying they are not dedicated enough to the lab. For the more senior students, it is great to see all the experiments they did over the last semester in one place. They often realize how much they did and are proud.
Q: Results? A: Awesome. These reports are super awesome. Here are some reasons why:
- The students get a chance to look at what they have done. As I said above, they are often shocked by how much they were able to complete. If they are balancing multiple projects, they are able to look at which projects made progress and which are struggling, and evaluate where to put their efforts.
- They get a chance to see what they are going to do. Sometimes students are so excited about taking data, they aren’t thinking about their progress, how much more they really need for a story, or if they might be done. Taking this time to rehash what they did often helps them to sort out where they are and what they still need to do.
- They get a chance to self-evaluate. Similar to giving them time to plan, giving time to self-evaluate is really important to stay motivated and keep things moving.
- Sometimes we realize they have enough for a paper. This has happened 3 times, in fact. I’m not sure how your science works, but in my field, it often takes a year to figure out how to take the data, but once you figure it out, you can basically take all the data in a couple months. Three different times, when I read a student’s report, there was enough data in there for a paper. Maybe a few new experiments were needed. Maybe a re-analysis, but the meat of a paper was there. Isn’t that amazing?
The only downside of this process is that sometimes I am too busy to do a good job reading the reports. That is bad, and I need to make time to do it. I am going to get many of them on June 1, and I need to make time to read and respond to them. It is especially important during my current situation (sabbatical) that I take the time to read and respond to all the reports.
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