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Why didn’t they cover this in school?

July 22, 2011

College and graduate school can teach you a lot about planetary science, but often the curriculum is thin when it comes to HOW to be a successful scientist. This is where mentoring — from advisers, other professors, peers, blogs, etc. — can make or break current and future Women in Planetary Science.

I had good undergraduate and graduate research experiences, but my advisers and professors weren’t big on “professional” mentoring. They showed me how to use different instruments, provided feedback as I interpreted the data, and constructive criticism when I presented the results, but I didn’t get much instruction in how to write a successful proposal or advice on managing difficult colleagues.  I’ve gotten some advice from colleagues during my postdoc and at my current institution, but my education is far from complete. So here is a question for you:

What is the best professional advice you have received that you can pass on to other Women in Planetary Science?  

My best nugget of advice I’ve received so far came from a more-senior colleague: When managing students (or others), set clear expectations early. We currently have >10 undergraduate and graduate students working on > 5 different funded projects in our lab. It’s great to have so much activity going on and I love working with students, but it takes a lot of time and other resources to keep the whole operation working successfully. I’ve spent the last four years trying to figure out what I’m supposed to be doing as an adviser and project PI, and I feel like I still have a lot to learn. My main collaborator (and spouse) and I recently spent some time discussing our expectations and making a list, then sharing them with everyone in a group meeting and a follow-up email. This has had a positive impact on the group dynamics and productivity and I wish we had done it much earlier.  A few examples of expectations from our list:

  • Conduct yourselves professionally with utmost concern for safety of yourselves and others.
  • Work as a team to overcome challenges.  Take time to provide help when others need your expertise and experience.
  • Keep in mind the adage, “an hour in the library can save you a week/year in the lab”. Be self-motivated to consult the primary literature.
  • Write up your results to communicate your work to your labmates, scientific colleagues, and the public. If we don’t communicate our results, we aren’t doing our job as researchers.
  • Approach every task with a mindset of doing the best you can do.  It would be better not to do something at all than to do it carelessly.
  • Think of yourself as a researcher, not an employee.  Take ownership of and pride in your work.

What advice can you share?

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