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Mentoring Manual

How to handle your schedule

For many students, this can be the first experience with an open-ended research question and a flexible work environment. A lab environment with positive role models along with specific discussions about schedules may help. However, in a lab environment without positive role models, it is important for the students to be confident and positive in their own abilities to get the work done and deal with the challenges of life.

Since many placements are relatively short – eight to ten weeks – they may not afford the luxury of a semester where one might be able to procrastinate and cram for exams. While lab groups can get into these habits of working long hours to accomplish work for a report or conference, modeling the consistent and well-organized work habits of a full time job can provide a clearer structure and norms for the student to work within.

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Scheduling: guide for students

Treat the field experience as a job; initially, plan to be in at 8am, take an hour for lunch, and leave at 5pm. Force yourself to maintain a schedule. One helpful tool at the beginning is to schedule your time carefully. Break down a day into hour-long times and write out a schedule with specific activities for each hour.

Be flexible, it may take you more or less time than you anticipate for each task. During the first week or two of the placement, this detailed schedule can help keep you motivated. During the last weeks of a placement, the detailed schedule may not be necessary because you now feel that you have transitioned from not knowing how to fill your day to now not knowing how you can get everything done in your day. So at the end of your placement, the task list can help you organize your schedule to get the critical tasks completed.

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Requesting time off

Many laboratory environments focus on accomplishing goals rather than counting work hours. Time is considered flexible, ranging from ‘everyone should always be in the lab’, to ‘just get the work done’. However, there are many examples of a student believing that the faculty mentor is fine with a flexible schedule, but then finding out that the flexibility that the student is exhibiting is making the faculty member uneasy and creating doubt regarding the student’s commitment to the work.

Generally, for field placements, it is expected that students will focus primarily and intensively on the fieldwork and that is why the program personnel have set aside time for this program. Do not go into the placement with an expectation that you can leave on a Wednesday or Thursday to have a long weekend at home, with friends, etc.

The key for all parties to remember is that many placements are extremely short (eight to ten weeks, one semester). There is little opportunity for flexible time while also accomplishing significant work during this period.

Students: Plan to ask for time off within the confines of accomplishing the research goals. When requesting time off, always explain how the work will be accomplished. Heading out on Friday afternoon to travel with some friends or fellow students, is generally not a wise choice. If you do decide to take time off, make the request as far in advance as possible. Include your mentor in the decision of whether or when to take the time off. Do not present it as a done deal because this sets up a situation where if the mentor says no then they are ruining your plans.

Also consider that many faculty members have hectic research schedules themselves. It is not uncommon for them to be called out of town for a one to three day business trip, or to suddenly have a day filled with meetings. This may get in the way of your plans to coordinate a trip and meet with your mentor. Again, your primary concern and commitment should be to your successful completion of your placement—this is an important part of your career advancement.

Graduate student mentors: Review your schedule and how you take time off before the new student arrives. If you take off on an afternoon with good wind to sail or wind surf at a local lake, talk to the faculty mentor about how to handle this with the student(s) you are supervising.

Be clear about your expectations for taking time off. Make sure and set a good example yourself. Give examples of the type of activities that you have approved for students to take time off from the work schedule. Establish an expectation of how you will be involved in the decisions that the student makes to take time off. In general, it is best to err on the side of having the student involve you in the decision as early as possible. While you may see this as overbearing and not allowing students the independence they need, a worse situation is if you get annoyed or inconvenienced. Again, for many students, this may be their first experience of being in a professional scientific/engineering work environment and they may need assistance with establishing professional behavior.

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Handling family and other personal emergencies

“I think we often forget that each of our cultures: as a Black person, Hispanic, Native American or Asian, may affect our thinking and responsibility to our family as well as our passion for our work.  I think we need to do a better job of acquainting our leaders/mentors with these cultural differences in our students.  Some may say that this is not needed, but an appreciation of one’s family life and upbringing can add to the respect and credibility of the mentor as well as the student.”
-- Larry Campbell, Colonel, US Army (Retired), Program Director, Opt Ed, AGEP, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Personal and family emergencies can happen during a placement. It is critical for everyone to be in communication as early as possible when this situation arises. The section on personal counseling should be reviewed. There are instances when an emergency can make decisions difficult, and personal counseling can provide assistance with making decisions. Assistance may be needed to determine how best to handle the situation. Before you decide on an action, be sure that the situation is clear to all parties concerned.

Students: Mentors are usually reasonable and almost all have experienced personal and/or family emergencies themselves. Describe the situation clearly articulating what it means to you. The mentor may not have had a similar experience with her or his family situation, so may not relate to the specific situation, but will likely try their best connect to how you experience the situation.

Be prepared to consider the consequence of your action on the research progress of your summer placement. There are emergencies that require your absence from the placement and most mentors will work with you to help you get the most from your field experience. However, keep in mind that this is a unique opportunity, one that can lead to recommendations that will help advance you into your next career move (fellowships, graduate school, job, etc.). You want to handle this as professionally as possible.

Mentors: You may need assistance in determining if a student is making the best decision. Seek advice after you understand the situation. If the student’s decision puts the research progress at risk, be sure to make this clear and discuss the potential consequences with the student. Work with program staff to ensure that the student is getting needed support and that staff are aware of the discussions and decisions that you have made with the student. A meeting with a student when she/he is considering how to react can take several hours. Your patience and professional guidance can play a critical role, modeling how they might make decisions in the future.

Consult with student support service professionals such as the Dean of Students' Office or Student Counseling Service. They have extensive experience and advice that can assist you in the process of providing help. You are the expert in research; they are the experts in professional counseling for students.

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