Working in a research lab is rewarding, frustrating, challenging, exciting, and most of all – fun. And being able to do this online allows even more students to participate in undergraduate research than ever before. But what does it take to be the student Lab Coordinator, to ensure work gets done despite the distance and technological “glitches” and different schedules and life events?
Before the semester starts, you need a plan. Consider these points:
- When/Where will meetings occur?
- What do you want the meetings to accomplish?
- What are the research projects you’re working on, and how far into the research process are they?
- What will be the main form of communication for lab members? (phone, e-mail, video chat…)
- What tools will you use to keep members on track? (reminders, agendas…)
- How will you manage meetings so each lab member is able to participate equally?
- What will you do when something goes wrong?
The more you plan for each of these eventualities, the easier it will be to deal with unexpected events. This article on Forbes.com also offers some helpful tips for managing the meetings once you’re in them!
When it comes to scheduling meetings, Doodle polls can be helpful to find the best day and time for everyone’s schedule.
There is also a lot of work that happens before and after each meeting to ensure success – besides planning your agenda. Your job is to help keep everyone’s research on track, and remove any obstacles you can for each research assistant. In general, this will consist of small tasks like:
- Sending e-mail reminders for lab tasks, like reading an article for discussion
- Reaching out to lab members who seem to be struggling
- Being available to answer questions that don’t necessarily need a professor’s viewpoint
- Peer-reviewing lab work and offering feedback
- Sharing helpful resources (like this post on writing a State of the Literature) when needed
- Noticing trends (similar questions, etc) in knowledge, and working with the professor(s) to address these
None of these are particularly time-consuming, but by doing them you allow the professors to concentrate on their work without interruption. Which, in turn, makes the lab more productive for everyone! It can also be less intimidating to talk to a peer about problems or ideas (or to ask for feedback on a first draft) than to bring it up to a busy professor. Make sure the lab members know that you’re available for these types of support at the beginning of the semester, and repeat it as necessary in following meetings.
Don’t forget to set boundaries as well. Your time is important, and if you’re only available to answer e-mails on certain days or can’t take phone calls during the weekend – make that clear at the start. If you get a question that you can’t answer, forward it to the professor who can. And if something makes you uncomfortable, address it quickly and firmly.
Use your resources
Finally, don’t forget to utilize the support available to you! Your professor(s) are there to answer questions you have, and if you find that your workload is too heavy, you can ask a lab member to support you with it. The primary benefit of online labs is their flexibility; take advantage of that! There are also thousands of online sources you can search if you have a question: Forbes and Harvard Business Review have great resources for teams, meetings, and the coordinating side of things; and searching for a topic with “.pdf” can help you find scholarly resources for other questions.1Thanks to Jessala Grijalva for this tip!
Above all, relax. These guidelines will help you get started, and you’ll find what works best for you as you go along – that’s the great thing about independent studies. Running meetings, sending reminders, and answering questions will all get easier as you practice; and by the end of the semester you might not even need to plan ahead to have a productive meeting. This is a great experience – have fun with it!