Research experience during their undergraduate years can be a great way to motivate students and aid their future career development. However, most students seeking such experience run up against a major hindrance in the form of unresponsiveness of the researchers whom they approach with such requests. Divya writes about the harmful consequences of such attitudes and some possible ways in which this could be mitigated.
I woke up at 11 a.m. on a Saturday in June to find a missed call that made me sit up on my bed with a jolt. It was from Shubha Tole, a Professor at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, with whom I was supposed to work for my year-long MS dissertation starting May this year, before all plans were rendered moot by the COVID-19 pandemic. At that point, we weren’t sure if the situation would become conducive for me to travel to Mumbai to work in her lab any time soon.
I called her back, anticipating bad news. She answered with her characteristic friendly greeting. She informed me that the situation was dire in Mumbai and it wasn’t likely that I would get to work at the institute in time to complete my thesis. This was not unexpected. But what struck me as incredible was her calling me to convey this news, rather than sending me a short e‑mail, as is the usual practice. I expressed my immense gratitude for the gesture. She answered that this was the least she could do for an earnest student, as I and my peers represent the future of science.
This left me speechless. Here was a senior professor and a highly regarded scientist extending a most generous act of mentorship and claiming that there was nothing impressive about it at all! The call lasted 6 minutes and it left me re-thinking the prevailing practices of correspondence and mentorship that I had thus far accepted as the standard.
This incident reminded me of the numerous instances when I had spent a week reading about the current research of a particular professor whose work I was interested in. I would email them requesting an opportunity to pursue an internship at their lab, stating what I found interesting in their work (gleaned from their website and published papers), my general understanding of their field, and the skills I possess relevant to their work. Immediately upon sending the email, I would mark the date on my google calendar and set two reminders in the app to send follow-up emails to the professor at one-week intervals, requesting them to reply to my mail.
The sad thing is that I have always had to send the first reminder and in at least a third of the cases, the second reminder before the professor would acknowledge my mail, even if it is to decline the request due to lack of space in their lab. Some of them never acknowledge the mail.
This is not just my experience, but that of a huge chunk of my peers, who have a good amount of lab experience and are among the highest-scoring students at a premier institute in the country. Most of us make a list of labs in the order of our interest in their work and write to the most preferred lab first. The delay and uncertainty in getting a reply results in the whole process of applying for internships getting extended, with an accompanying decline in our spirits, as we wait for an acknowledgement from our dream labs. Is it justified for weeks of dedicated effort from the students’ part to go unacknowledged like this?
Over the years, a few of us began calling this practice wherein an undergraduate (UG) student emails a professor and keeps pursuing them until their willpower runs out as “academic courtship”. Once the term was coined, we noticed that the “courtship” continues even after a professor grants us an interview. One of my friends who applied to a lab in the UK and got an interview with the scientist was astonished when she asked her about her expectations from the lab during the conversation. That she as the applicant was allowed to have expectations from the lab bestowing the opportunity on her had never occurred to her! Isn’t there something inherently wrong with the system if the cream of the crop of undergraduates across the country are so used to complying that they are left speechless when they are offered consideration?
Once granted a project, most UG students are asked to shadow senior PhD students or post-docs to learn the basic protocols in the lab. This is a very comfortable arrangement most of the time, except for when the very well-documented stressful lives of these senior members of the lab put them in a position from where they can’t handle the demanding task of mentoring a new student effectively.
When this happens, more often than not, the naïve UG student finds themselves as the final recipient of the pressure trickling down through the academic hierarchy. This can damage the spirit and will of a young student taking the first tentative steps into the extremely bewildering world of academicians. Even when the relationship with senior students is healthy, it is not justified to let that person be the sole mentor to the junior student. Unfortunately, absentee PIs are extremely common, limiting mentorship to that offered by generous PhD students or postdocs.
While the most common problems faced by UG students fall within the above categories, problems arising out of differences, often personal, with faculties who are not above pursuing such differences viciously to the detriment of the young student are not unheard of. Addressing such extreme cases needs that empowered committees are set up at the institutional level, making available a safe space for the extremely vulnerable students to speak up and seek redressal.
The problems faced by the youngest members of the academic community fall within a wide range of severity and even the seemingly lighter concerns outlined here can cause significant damage on chronic exposure. Hence, there is a need to replace the almost systematic neglect with an active effort towards mending the work culture.
Working toward solutions
Running a research lab is no small task. We have all read article after article about the challenging lives of career scientists. A friendly faculty or two have often divulged that their busy schedules don’t permit replying to the large number of emails that they receive every day, especially close to the summer break, even though they want to. But, the existing system is one which is taking an unhealthy toll on undergraduate students across the country. We find ourselves falling prey to an extremely skewed hierarchical set-up, and end up neglecting our own well-being in a bid to get acknowledged and mentored.
It should be acknowledged that the process of coming up with a concise email that is designed to piqué the interest of a distinguished member of the scientific community is the first professional endeavour for most students. A lot of thought goes into crafting each sentence. Replying to these emails within a week or so, even if it is to inform them that it is not possible to accept their candidature, will go a long way in boosting the confidence of the student. Even effectively declining an application needs to be viewed as part of mentorship.
It may help to put in place specific guidelines for applicants, designed to help professors address a large number of emails efficiently. Perhaps all the students who apply for positions can be instructed to send their emails within a specific time window with a particular subject line. I cannot stress the importance of updating lab websites to explicitly inform us that you don’t have enough lab space. Such small changes could go a long way towards making the whole process healthier and more rewarding for the students with minimal efforts on the side of the faculty.
Accessibility of the faculty mentor is key. While most professors have regular meeting schedules with their PhD students, a similar system does not exist for UG students in most labs. The importance of face-to-face conversations with your mentor cannot be emphasised enough. Such a practice will go a long way towards enhancing the morale of students, besides helping them express any concerns they may have about the lab environment in a trusted space. Besides, a student-centric approach to mentoring is the need of the hour, given that very few students understand the myriad of new avenues opening up for science graduates.
Science is a collaborative enterprise at its core. It is the efforts of generations of scientists that often coalesce into paradigm-shifting results. It is only by standing on the shoulders of giants that one can see further. Hence, mentoring the next generation of scientists who will take the quest forward is as important as original research. The science of today is not just about being curious and evaluating questions systematically through the lens of rationality. It is also about being a member of a highly dynamic and partially closed community.
While the syllabi of our universities are being revised to impart knowledge in better ways, the specific challenges of being part of a simultaneously competitive and interdependent community need to be learnt from being a part of active research. With more and more UG students expressing the interest and calibre to engage in research, I am humbly appealing to the entire scientific community to make an effort towards making the system more welcoming for us.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://indiabioscience.org/columns/opinion/an-appeal-from-the-future-of-scientific-leadership-to-the-incumbents