One of the lessons you will quickly learn is that to be successful in undergraduate research, you must know much more than a large body of scientific facts. You will need a variety of both technical and non-technical skills including:

A vital but often not consciously recognized element of the research process is professionalism. In order to carry out your project and communicate its findings, you must able to manage yourself and to partner effectively with others. In this section, you will find some advice on how to successfully navigate some of the many non-technical challenges you must successfully navigate in order to be an effective researcher.

Articles on Professionalism

Negotiating your salary

While we will focus on the issue of negotiating your salary as an undergraduate researcher in this section of WebGURU, the information is fundamentally useful and applicable to the greater issue of negotiations, salary or otherwise, in any business relationship.

Your first step should be to do some research to find out what are the salary norms for your employer. Salaries vary widely in undergraduate research experiences. Pelligrini and Mabrouk conducted a nationwide survey study of faculty involved as research advisors in undergraduate research experiences in the field of chemistry in 2001 (unpublished). They learned that faculty utilize a wide array of methods to support undergraduate research experiences including academic credit, salary, honors thesis, senior thesis, and volunteer status. When faculty paid students a stipend, Pelligrini and Mabrouk found that the average student salary was $7.50/h. However, they noted salaries varied widely with some faculty paying students as low as $3/h while others reported paying salaries as high as $12/h. Thus, it is clear that while UR stipends vary somewhat the average hourly pay rate is slightly less than the current minimum wage. This is important information as you will need to weigh the quality and value of the experience and training you will obtain as an undergraduate researcher against the amount of money you will receive in order to determine what is equitable from your standpoint.

Important considerations you should weigh include the following:

  • What is the potential value of this UR experience to your future career? You need to decide what do you want out of this research experience? Do you want to gain:
    • Hands on experience using a specific method, instrument, etc.?
    • Opportunity to work independently on a particular problem of interest to you?
    • Prospect to publish a paper and/or present at a national meeting?
  • What is the quality of the training environment?
    • What is the supervisor’s record, if any, in working with undergraduates?
    • Who are the other members of the research group?
    • What is their educational background, interests, and expertise?
    • Do you think that they will be valuable mentors to you?
    • Do you think that you will enjoy working with them?
  • What is the quality of the instrumentation and facilities that will be available to you?
  • What are the costs, if any, to you in taking on this undergraduate research experience?
    • How much time will you need to devote to this project?
    • Where will you live? If you must relocate in order to take advantage of this opportunity, will you be provided travel, subsistence, tuition waiver, or other costs?
    • Will you have to pay for anything? How much?

Once you have weighed the merits of the opportunity against the salary and any other considerations, you will need to decide whether or not you will be happy with the salary and the situation as presented to you. If the answer is no, you need to decide what you would truly need in order to make the situation acceptable. Think broadly and carefully; a higher salary may not necessarily be the answer. Next you need to discuss your concerns and requirements with your potential supervisor. It would be a good idea to write down all of the key points you want to get across in advance of the meeting and to bring a paper and pencil with you to the discussion so you can jot down the answers you get. If you find it uncomfortable discussing your requirements with your potential supervisor, then you need to think about the reasons for this (For example: Are these issues on your end? Is this a signal that this person is going to be difficult to work with?). It is important to decide whether or not you will be comfortable discussing other sensitive and important work-related issues with this person in the future. When you meet, don’t make any instant decisions one way or the other. Take at least a day and think through everything carefully. Put your decision in writing (this way you have a record for the future). When you make up your mind, move forward and don’t look back.

Time Management

Unlike traditional college courses, undergraduate research is a relatively unstructured experience. You will find that you have a great deal of freedom and flexibility in terms of what you do and when you choose to do it. This can be both a good or a bad thing depending on how effectively you are able to manage your time. Here we offer some tips on time management that will help you get the most out of your undergraduate research experience.

Suggestions on How to Get Off to a Good Start on Your Research Project

  • Make sure that you know what the goals, objectives, and deadlines, if any, are for your research project and establish a project timeline. Good time management begins with an appropriate appreciation for the "big picture." If you don't know where you are going then you will never get there. At the same time it is important to establish a deadline for accomplishing the goal even if the deadline is artificial. Most people work more effectively when they must meet a deadline. It is also important to take time at the outset to plan how you are going to achieve the goal. The individual, bite-size tasks you will need to accomplish in order to achieve your goal are what we refer to as the objectives. Next you will need to figure out how much time you will need in order to accomplish each objective. It is also a wise idea to think about whether or not each objective must be accomplished sequentially or whether any of the objectives can be tackled independent of the rest. This will give you flexibility. With the project outlined as suggested above, you will find it much easier to accomplish your project on time.
  • Take time at the start to research your project to orient yourself with respect to your project and the laboratory. What project will you be working on? What information is already known about the scientific problem, materials with which you will work, etc. Be sure to do the necessary background work on your laboratory and facilities. Good questions include: How do things get done in your lab? For example, how does one order chemicals, reagents, and/or supplies? How do new group members get trained on any specialized equipment or instrumentation? How is the lab organized, i.e., where are the chemicals, instruments, etc. located in the laboratory?
  • Use an organizer or day planner. If you don't already use a day planner or agenda, consider purchasing a simple one and beginning to learn to use it to track appointments, telephone conversations, e-mail and any written correspondence, etc. related to your research project Day planners can be extremely powerful tools when used reflectively. They can help you see how you spend your time which can in turn can help you learn how to better prioritize your time which will give you more time to do the things you really want to do.
  • Adopt a regular work schedule. Establish for yourself a regular work schedule that you will be able to sustain and you strive to keep to that schedule. To do this it is best to begin by identifying all of the regular activities including time spent commuting, lecture and lab sections, part-time jobs, clubs, sports, etc. Then block out, i.e., set aside time for your research each week. Last comment related to this the schedule you create isn't magical. It won't work unless you keep to it.
  • Prioritize. If you aren't used to long term or short term planning, you might want to begin by keeping "to do" lists for each day. Prioritize the tasks listed for the day and then work through them in the order of their priority. At the end of the day, evaluate your progress and prepare a new list for the next day.
  • Know yourself. Know your limitations - time and abilities. Don't take on more than you think you can accomplish.
  • Communicate regularly with your advisor. If you find yourself unable to move forward on any task related to your project, meet with your advisor as soon as possible to discuss possible options and/or solutions. Don't get in the mistaken mindset of thinking that you can only meet with your advisor when you have obtained positive results on your project. You will make stronger and more consistent progress on your project if you discuss difficulties as well as accomplishments with your advisor. Remember their role isn't to judge you but to teach you.
  • Learn how to stay focused and on task. Until you are confident in your ability, put all your effort into doing one thing at a time. Learn how to say "no" when necessary to requests from your advisor, friends, family, etc. that will divert needed energies from the task at hand.
  • Experiments usually take time to do well - usually more time than you think. This is often the case when you are mastering a new experimental protocol, learning to use a different instrument, etc. Be sure to schedule blocks of time in order to make progress on your project.
  • Understand what you are doing before you try to do anything in the lab. If you don't understand ask. If you still don't understand, ask again or ask someone else. It may not seem like this is a time-saving tool but this really is a time saver. If you understand what you are doing when you set about to do it you are more likely to do it right the first time.


Question: I have an examination and need to spend my time preparing for the exam. I really want to just forget about going to the laboratory this week. What should I do?

Answer: Make an appointment to speak with your advisor. I can't guarantee their response but every research advisor wants to see his/her undergraduate researchers succeed both in the classroom and in the research laboratory. It is important to touch base with your advisor as he/she may have deadlines to meet. It is also simply the mature, responsible thing to do. I can't guarantee that your advisor won't be disappointed. However, if you don't tell him/her about the exam and if you simply don't show up to lab then I can guarantee that he/she won't be very happy.


Coping With Stress

Everyone experiences stress at some point in their workplace. The research enterprise is by its nature competitive. The first time some of us realize that we are stressed is when we experience physical symptoms such as dizziness, problems sleeping, headaches, stomach aches, or extreme nervousness. These symptoms which can be irritating at best and debilitating at worst are useful in that they get our attention and help us to realize that we have a problem. Managed well, stress can enhance your job performance and push you to new heights. Managed poorly it can damage your health, personal, and professional life. Consequently, it is important to develop healthy coping skills now at the outset of your professional career. In this section we'll discuss some strategies for managing stress.

Common sources of stress in undergraduate research often include:

Time Management

Many problems that produced stress result from our failure to understand how to manage time effectively. Specific examples of potential difficulties might include an inability to accurately gauge and budget adequate time to carry out specific protocols and/or experiments, interpret data, prepare presentations, or write a thesis. For some suggestions regarding good time management strategies click here.

Personal Conflict in the Workplace

Conflict with others at work due to differences in communication styles, job expectations, etc. can be extremely stressful. It can be particularly painful if the conflict involves your research advisor. The section "Managing Your Advisor" contains specific information on how to work effectively with your research advisor.

Poor Diet, Lack of Exercise or Insufficient Sleep

Are you taking care of your physical body - eating balanced meals regularly and working out? Are you sleeping well and for a sufficient amount of time? It is no understatement to say that you are what you eat. If you aren't eating healthy food on a regular basis then you may not have the mental acuity needed to do your research, perform optimally in the classroom, or to deal with the many problems that can arise both inside and outside of the laboratory on an average day. Be sure that you take time out to eat three healthy meals each day. Also, be sure to exercise. Exercise is a known stress reducer. Meal time and regular exercise can also be beneficial because they can provide you with breathing room and time for relaxation and reflection. Lastly, it is important to get sufficient rest. Seven to eight hours is recommended by most health professionals for adults. Too little sleep creates a state of sleep deprivation that may cause you to feel sleepy during the day. Sleep deprivation is very dangerous as it can produce impaired judgment and poor hand-eye coordination that can reduce your efficiency in general and could potentially result in dangerous situations in the research laboratory. Students often turn to caffeine and other stimulants in an effort to combat the effects of sleep deprivation. Although these drugs may prove helpful in the short term in combating the effects of sleep deprivation, they can interfere with sleep and impede the recuperative effects of sleep. Be sure to approach their use with due caution.

Self-Image and Self-Confidence

To be a good researcher, you need to have a healthy self-image. You need to know your strengths and recognize your weaknesses. You need to have a realistic self-confidence in your abilities which may be tested on a daily basis depending on the type of work that you do. No one feels self-confident all the time but if you feel incompetent or like an imposter most of the time then something is wrong either with you or with your work environment. The first step is to figure out whether the problem has to do more with you and your self-view or with your work environment.

Perfectionism and Failure

Most of us want to be the very best that we can be. Too often in the process we set our personal expectations so high that it isn't humanly possible for us to meet them. The first step is accepting imperfection in ourselves and in others - giving ourselves "permission" to fail. This can be very freeing. Once you accept that you have made a mistake it is important to learn from your mistake so that you can avoid making it again in the future. Don't get upset by minor things. No one is perfect.

A Holistic Perspective

It is vitally important to take a holistic view to stress. Are you engaged in activities outside the classroom and the research laboratory? If not it is important to have hobbies, exercise, make time for yourself. Do you have healthy personal relationships with people outside the research laboratory? It is important to have a supportive personal support network. Normally, this is constituted of family and friends. These individuals need not be scientists and/or engineers and in fact it is probably better if they aren't. All these people need to be are folks who know and care about you and are willing to take the time out every so often to listen to you and offer thoughtful, candid feedback.

Unhealthy Work Environment

Unhealthy working conditions can also be a source of stress. Old, poorly functioning equipment and/or instrumentation, dangerous work conditions (e.g., poor ventilation, etc.), inadequate funds to support the purchase of needed materials and/or reagents, or a poor match between project and investigator in terms of interests, expertise, and abilities area all examples of work conditions that can lead to stress. If your work environment is unhealthy, it is important to discuss the issues with your advisor so that appropriate corrective changes can be made in your workplace.

Fear of Public Speaking

It has been said that more people fear public speaking than they do death. It is normal to experience some degree of anxiety in preparing and delivering oral presentations about your work. A certain degree of anxiety can be helpful and spur you to excel. However, the prospect of delivering an oral presentation shouldn't render you a nervous wreck each time you must do it. You can substantially decrease the level of your anxiety by learning how to prepare and deliver an effective talk. You will also find that over time as you gain experience in public speaking your self-confidence will increase while your anxiety naturally decreases. Some basic tenets of public speaking are outlined in the section entitled "Communicating Science."

Get Professional Help If You Need It

Don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it. If you are experiencing severe depression, are preoccupied with death, have experienced one or more major losses recently, these are warning signs of a potentially serious mental health problem. If you need help, speak to someone. It is important to understand that there is nothing wrong in seeking professional help in order to learn to deal with stress. The Counseling Services Office at your workplace or academic institution is a safe place to go if you need to speak with someone.

Dealing With Failure

"Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new."
-Albert Einstein

The majority of novels, television shows and motion pictures about scientific research often leave the mistaken impression that research is an almost mystical "eureka" process in which the researcher leaps from "A" to "Z" in one instantaneous, perfect step. The reality is that research is a lengthy, sometimes tedious and even laborious process in which the researcher may perform many experiments or sometimes repeat the same experiment repeatedly unsuccessfully before finally obtaining the desired results. Failure is a normal and integral aspect of the research process.

In research we form a hypothesis or best guess based on current understanding of the phenomenon under investigation and then we devise an experiment to test that hypothesis. Hypotheses are often wrong. In these cases experiments may not go as planned so it is critical for student researchers to understand that it is quite normal for experiments to go other than as planned and to not get upset and take it personally when this happens - even if it happens repeatedly. Remember you aren't a failure if your experiment fails.

Science is all about being creative - thinking outside the box and about taking calculated risks. Failures can lead to new research ideas and new directions. Failures provide correction regarding long held but sometimes false concepts or ideas in a field. Don't be afraid of making mistakes.

How can you minimize the risk of failure and maximize the likelihood of your success?

  • Acquire knowledge - read as much as you can;
  • Discuss - talk about your work with your peers and with experts in the field (note make sure that you have your advisor's permission and that you aren't giving away your ideas);
  • Review and reflect on failures - reflect on the process and the outcome of the experiment and try to understand why the experiment didn't go as planned. If you are stuck, take a break, discuss your work with other knowledgeable individuals.
  • Implement corrective action - remember you won't get a different outcome unless you change something about what you are doing.

Extreme Emotions

It is normal to be upset, become angry, cry, and to feel a loss of control when things go wrong and experiments fail in the lab. However, if you become depressed, feel that you cannot cope, or experience suicidal thoughts then it is important that you seek help from a mental health professional at your school or workplace.

Managing Your Advisor

Advisor styles and methods are as varied as advisors themselves. Some advisors are extraverted, gregarious, social animals. Others are shy, moody, and some even socially awkward individuals. Results from a 2000 national study (Mabrouk and Peters) of undergraduate research students revealed that no matter their personality, a good advisor is someone who is knowledgeable about the research project, enthusiastic, available, and patient.

Effective communication with your advisor is an essential skill. You may be the best research student in the world but if you never tell your advisor what you have been able to achieve in the lab then he/she is not likely to be able to form that same positive opinion of you and your abilities. The principles discussed in this section are ones you will find useful in the long term no matter what type of career you ultimately pursue.

Frequent Communication is Normal, Important and Expected
It is really important to meet frequently and regularly with your research advisor as you begin your undergraduate research experience. Don't avoid speaking with your advisor because you are afraid that he/she will think you are "bothering" them too much. Be assured that your advisor expects you to have a lot of questions and to need more assistance at the start of your project. If you are experiencing difficulties making progress on your research project, it is perhaps more important to make an effort to communicate regularly with your advisor about your work.

Although this depends somewhat on your advisor's approach to group management, he/she will likely want to schedule regular weekly meetings with you when you first start your project. This is likely because he/she wants to be able to give you his/her full and undivided attention. Take it as a positive sign and make every effort to arrive on-time and prepared to discuss your progress. Bring your lab notebook and recent data with you and be prepared to open the discussion with a summary of your recent activities and accomplishments in the lab.

What Should I Tell My Advisor?

Be sure to let your advisor know your schedule, any difficult classes you may be taking, any health concerns, and any other information that might help them to understand you, your abilities, and time constraints on your availability in the lab.

Don't feel that you must confine your conversations simply to what happens in the research laboratory however remember no matter your advisor's age, personality, or interests, your advisor is your boss. Keep your conversations professional.

  • Do make sure that your advisor knows your career goals and interests. He/she may have knowledge of certain programs and/or other opportunities for which you may qualify. If your advisor isn't aware of your interests and abilities, they may not think to inform you concerning these opportunities.
  • Don't share details about your personal life - dating activities, etc. Sharing personal information is generally regarded as unprofessional and inappropriate for the workplace. While you may feel that your research advisor is your friend and mentor, remember that he/she is also your supervisor/employer. If you are experiencing personal problems that are impacting or may impact your ability to carry out your research project and you need a sounding board do approach your advisor and seek his/her assistance.

Understand Your Advisor's Goals

To be successful it is important to understand what makes your advisor "tick."

Why do faculty work with undergraduate students? In 2001, Jared Pelligrini and Patricia Mabrouk conducted an unpublished study of chemistry faculty across the U.S. involved in undergraduate research. The researchers found that faculty participate in undergraduate research for a variety of reasons including:

  • Faculty enjoy research;
  • Faculty enjoy working with students;
  • Faculty like solving important problems; and
  • Faculty participation may be required for tenure, and/or promotion, and/or merit raises.

This study also found that a significant number of faculty are motivated because of their own highly positive undergraduate research experiences. So, the bottom line is that your faculty mentor may have very altruistic, idealistic reasons but they may also have very practical, pragmatic reasons for working with you in the laboratory.

Since most faculty support their research efforts in the laboratory through externally acquired research grants, it is important for you as a student to appreciate the pressures and time constraints under which your advisor may work. The duration of a typical federally funded research grant is three years. Each year, the principal investigator, the individual leading the research project, must file a progress report summarizing the work that has been accomplished, describe the plans for the next year, and list the publications that have been submitted and/or which have been published since the previous progress report. Most federal grant programs expect the investigator to submit a list of at least five peer-reviewed publications.

Industrial research grants are typically awarded on a year-by-year basis. The principal investigator may have to submit not only a written report of research productivity for the time period of the award but may also be required to make a formal presentation to the company. Because of concerns related to intellectual property rights, productivity is not normally measured in terms of peer-reviewed publications and meeting presentations.

Understand Your Advisor's Management Style

Some research advisors are focused on the big picture while others are very detail oriented. Some advisors run their groups using a democratic, non-hierarchical approach while others are authoritarian and may even seem dictatorial in their management style. Some faculty advisors work alongside their students in the lab while others prefer to manage their groups from their offices. To be successful as a research student, it is important to know your advisor's management style and be able to work with it.

Faculty may place different emphasis on different aspects of the research process depending on their strengths and weaknesses. Overall, as a manager of people and resources your advisor's focus is likely on the "big picture." This means that your advisor ensure that the people working in the lab are making good progress on their respective research problems.

In general students are given problems that haven't heretofore been studied in the past. This means that your advisor will attempt to match each research problem to each student - career goals, research interests, skills, and abilities - to the best of his/her ability. You can maximize your likelihood of success by communicating clearly and accurately to your advisor what your career goals are, time constraints (courses you are taking or plan to take while working on your research problem, any outside job commitments, student activities, etc.), the nature of your technical expertise (coursework, grades, and research experiences), etc. If you find that your research problem is too easy, too difficult, or simply uninteresting, be sure to let your advisor know as soon as possible so that they can modify or change the project and/or resources in order to ensure you make good progress.

Advice on Dealing with Difficult Bosses

If you understand what faculty don't like, it may help you to understand when your advisor seems to be a difficult boss and why. Like students, faculty have limited time and resources with which to accomplish their goals. So, naturally faculty aren't happy when students quit unexpectedly, without notice, or fail to meet project deadlines and when precious research resources such as equipment and reagents are wasted or broken. If you encounter difficulties with your advisor, it may be due to a failure to communicate on your end or you may simply have a difficult boss (smile).

Strive to be positive, enthusiastic about your project, and not argumentative when you speak with your advisor. Think about your own experiences. When are you most likely to assist someone who asks you for help? In general, people are more likely to assent to a request when the requestor is friendly and positive.

Expect to receive some criticism. Hopefully this will be balanced with constructive criticism and honest praise. As a student learner, you will be doing things you have never done before and it may take you several attempts before you are successful in mastering some skills, etc. If you advisor reacts negatively, it may be that your boss is frustrated with your actions and/or with the outcome of the experiment. It is also possible, that your advisor may not be sure what the problem is or how to fix it. Some people get upset and react badly when they are faced with situations over which they don't feel that they have knowledge and/or control. Keep cool and try not to take any criticism personally. Ask for suggestions. If you have a thin skin and find it difficult to accept any criticism, you will find it difficult to be successful in the long term in your career so work hard now to develop healthy, positive coping skills that will allow you to accept and learn from any criticism you may receive.

Don't be afraid of conflict. Conflict is inevitable in any human relationship. The most important thing is how you react when conflict occurs. If at all possible, don't attack the person, instead focus on the facts. Depending on the situation, it may make sense to look for a compromise, an action/activity that will meet the needs of both parties involved in the conflict. If compromise doesn't appear possible, consider bringing in a third party or mediator.

Special Situations: Younger Faculty

If you work with a young faculty member it is useful to know that faculty learn how to be research mentors "on the job." Most faculty are hired directly upon completing several years of postdoctoral study in which the main focus of their work is demonstrating independent research productivity. This means that normally a new Assistant Professor is not likely to have completed any management training classes or to have any real practical experience in running an independent research group. It also means that most young faculty are likely to model their own management practices for better or worse on those of their (undergraduate - if they did undergraduate research themselves), graduate or postgraduate research groups.

Last Things: Keep in Touch

Important to keep in touch even after your formal research relationship ends as your advisor can provide you with useful career mentoring and may be useful as a reference for future jobs, graduate and/or professional school. Don't be afraid to send an occasional e-mail message or holiday card or to telephone or stop by to say hello.


Mabrouk, P.A.; Peters, K. CUR Quarterly 2000, 21, 25-33. "Student Perspectives on Undergraduate Research (UR) Experiences in Chemistry and Biology."

Working Independently

One of the abilities that most faculty mentors (and employers, folks!) desire to cultivate in their undergraduate charges is independence. In this section, we'll discuss some strategies that will help you learn how to become a self-motivated, self-regulating independent scientist. You will find that the principles you learn here are foundational to lifelong learning, professional growth, development, and long term career satisfaction. They will stand you in good stead in your life no matter your specific choice of career or career path.

A good place to begin is by carefully thinking about your own learning style. Useful questions to think about include:

  • Do you like to work independently or do you need a more structured environment?
  • Are you self-motivated or do you need regular feedback in order to make progress?
  • Do you work best at your own pace or when prodded by others?

What does it mean to be independent?

It means:

  • Becoming self-aware, self-monitoring and self-correcting;
  • Knowing what you need to do;
  • Taking the initiative rather than waiting to be told what to do;
  • Doing what is asked to the best of your ability, without the need for external prodding, and working until the job is completed;
  • Learning to work at a pace that you can sustain;
  • Taking ownership of your mistakes without looking for excuses; and
  • Refusing to let self-doubt or negative emotions due to negative past experiences take you off course.

Key to being independent is your:

  • Self-awareness,
  • Self-motivation, and
  • Self-regulation.

We will consider each of these characteristics below.


Self-awareness refers to your knowledge and understanding of yourself - your emotions, beliefs, assumptions, biases, knowledge base, abilities, motivations, interests, etc. As you carry out your undergraduate research project, make a conscious effort to learn about yourself - your abilities, beliefs, likes and dislikes.

Some useful questions to think about in this regard are the following:

  • What kind of science do you enjoy doing? Fundamental or applied?
  • Do you enjoy working in the lab or in an office?
  • Do you enjoy explaining your work? How? Orally? In Writing? Both?
  • Do you like working with others as a member of a team or do you prefer to work by yourself?
  • Are you a good listener?
  • Can you handle personal conflict?
  • Do you prefer delving into a problem deeply?
  • Do you see the "big picture"?
  • Do you prefer to work on short term projects (6 months or less) or long term projects?
  • Do you enjoy using instrumentation? What kinds?
  • Do you enjoy using computers and/or software?
  • Do you enjoy travel? Can you speak one or more foreign languages conversationally? Can you read in another language?
  • Are you self-motivated? Do you require external prompts in order to meet deadlines and/or achieve results?

Your answers to these questions will help you identify your skill set, interests, career path, and motivators.

Personality assessment can also be very useful in helping you gain insight into yourself, your strengths, weaknesses, motivators and provide you with insights into how to grow personally and professionally. Examples of frequently used personality assessment tools include the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator (MBPI), the Caliper Profile, and the Kiersey Temperament Sorter. It is useful to be aware of these tools as private industry often uses these in making hiring, performance appraisal, and team building. A number of these personality assessment tools are available on the world-wide web. The MBPI is used widely. If you ask around, it is highly likely that you will be able to find an office at your academic institution where you can complete the MBPI and obtain your personality profile at no cost.


Self-motivation refers to your ability to identify effective methods of getting yourself to move from thought to action. Everyone is different. Some individuals are highly self-motivated while others require the imposition of external deadlines or some type of reward or penalty in order to move from thought to action. Identifying your specific needs in this area is the first step.

A common barrier to action is often the perception that a task is too large or too complex to accomplish. If that is an issue for you, then a useful practice is to break down the job into several smaller, more "doable" tasks each of which you can envision accomplishing in a set time period.


Self-regulation focuses on your ability to affect personal and professional growth based on your self-awareness and motivation.

Useful questions you should ask yourself in an effort to self-regulate are the following:

  • Who will provide direct supervision or oversight on my project? With what frequency (daily, weekly, etc.)?
  • What are the deadlines, if any, relevant to my research project?
  • What are the formal requirements, if any, for my research? These might include progress reports, oral presentations, a final written report or thesis?
  • What are the outcomes that I desire from my participation in this project? What, if anything, do I need to do in order to achieve these outcomes?

Day planners can be extremely tools facilitating self-regulation. There are a number of commercial companies such as Day Timer and Franklin Covey that sell day planner products and services (books, magazines, and seminars) in support of their planner products. Today a growing number of colleges and universities are providing their students with planners and offer free seminars on how to use them effectively (time management). You will find specific suggestions concerning time management here on WebGURU.

Reflective journaling is another tool that can be extremely useful in developing greater self-awareness and becoming self-regulating. You will find more information on reflective journaling here.

Advisor/Student Relationship

Mutual respect, honesty, and fairness are critical in any collaborative scientific efforts involving two or more people but perhaps no place is it more important than in the student-teacher relationship. Recognizing the uniqueness and importance of this relationship, many professional organizations even discuss it in their creeds. For example, the American Chemical Society’s Chemist’s Code of Conduct states:

    "Associates. Chemists should treat associates with respect, regardless of the level of their formal education, encourage them, learn with them, share ideas honestly, and give credit for their contributions."

In part this is due to the status and power differentials in the relationship. Clear communication on both sides of the advising relationship is key to minimizing difficulties – advisors and their students often are from different cultures, generations, and family backgrounds. Significant problems don’t arise very often but when they do, they are often graphic and extreme. Examples of abuses of the faculty-student relationship might include advisors asking students to do personal work such as baby-sitting, mowing lawns or raking leaves, photocopying exams, etc. (exploitation) or advisors imposing unwanted emotional or physical demands on students in the form of unwanted physical contact (e.g., touching), sexual or racial jokes, sexual comments about your body or physical appearance, social or sexual requests, etc. (sexual harassment)

Harassment and Exploitation

Harassment, exploitation and sexual harassment are unethical and illegal. If you are not sure but are concerned that you may have been exploited, physically or sexually harassed by a faculty member, supervisor or other personnel at your workplace, it is important to seek help as you may experience severe emotions and serious physical problems if you attempt to ignore the situation. It is also important to speak with someone as others may also unwittingly become victims as well if the harassment or exploitation goes unreported. If you believe that you have been the victim of exploitation or sexual harassment, you should bring the matter as soon as possible after the alleged incident to the attention of the sexual harassment officer at your workplace. The harassment officer will listen, respecting your privacy and confidentiality, help you sort out your thoughts, inform you concerning the available options if you want to resolve the situation, and can act as a third-party intervenor, if you wish, with the alleged harasser. They are also in the best position to protect you, if you feel it is needed, against retaliation and/or reprisals and can assist you in obtaining any psychological, medical or religious help you may need in order to deal with the situation.

Less extreme problems are more commonplace and often arise from differences in personal style, for example, some advisors may be moody, mean, thoughtless, and simply unpleasant people to work for. Differences can also arise due to differences in expectations including work schedule (duration of employment, hours per week, etc.), nature of the project, specific research tasks and outcomes, the form of payment, project evaluation criteria, or assignment of credit. Consequently, it is a wise idea to craft a research learning contract detailing your expectations and requirements for the relationship at the outset of your research project. This can go a long way to circumventing misunderstandings and problems on both sides of the working relationship.


  • Be scrupulous in your dealings with others. You will never regret it.
  • Keep your relationship with your advisor professional. Romantic and/or sexual relationships between teachers and students, even when consensual, are problematic at best.
  • Always try to identify shared values when trying to deal with conflict.
  • Be selective in waging any battles. Fighting whether physically or figuratively takes time and energy from you. Recognize that it may be a losing battle as there are some things you may not be able to change – affecting institutional change is one of them and getting other people to change their behavior is another. The effort you expend fighting may simply exhaust you unnecessarily, diverting your focus from the things you could be doing that are positive. Be sure you count the cost.
  • Life isn’t always fair. Move on. Don’t try to get revenge. Such efforts often backfire and may cost you more than they will the other person – personally, emotionally, and/or professionally.

Dealing With Difficult People

In this section we will explore strategies for dealing constructively with those difficult people with whom you may find yourself laboring at school or work. They are everywhere if you haven’t noticed. On a more serious note, it really is critical to master this life skill early in your career as you will encounter difficult people in the workplace. Both your short term and long term career success and satisfaction will depend to a significant extent on your ability to successfully interact with these people.

The take home messages in this section are:

  1. People are difficult so it is helpful to be able to identify them and understand why they are difficult; and
  2. There are techniques that may be useful in dealing with the difficult people in your life; and practicing them now will make your life and future career much more pleasant and successful!

People ARE Difficult

Most people in the workplace are quite normal and nice ordinarily but may become difficult under special circumstances aka Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It should make sense then that if we can begin to identify some of the common potential stressors, situations that bring out the worst in people, this might allow you to better deal with these folks as will help you identify options and to act rather than react to any unpleasant situations that may arise with your difficult people.

Difficult People May Be Difficult for a Reason or Well… Difficult People May Simply Be Difficult

Some otherwise nice, normal people can become difficult people under certain circumstances. Common triggers are feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. The root of their problems may be a lack of social, self-efficacy, or even technical skills. There are others however who are simply, well, difficult. They are downright loud, mean, and contrary to everyone they meet in every situation that arises and yes, everyone knows this but that doesn’t prevent them from wreaking havoc wherever they go.

Some difficult people are aggressive while others may be passive in their aggression. Sounds funny doesn’t it? The aggressive difficult people are perhaps the easiest to identify. They are loud, intimidating, argumentative, even hostile in their demeanor. Not all aggressives are openly aggressive. Some difficult people appear quite pleasant on the surface but be covertly hostile behind the scenes taking verbal pot shots, delivering backhanded compliments. This may make these folks even more dangerous than the difficult people who are openly hostile-aggressive. Others are more passive in their aggression. They may be pleasant, cooperative on the surface but just never able to make a decision, take a risk, or complete an assignment. From their perspective, the problems are always external. Their behavior can be as toxic to you, your success, and happiness as those who are aggressively difficult.

Tips on dealing with difficult people

First, recognize that it isn’t helpful or healthful to take the behavior of difficult people personally.

Second and perhaps more importantly, what you need to realize is that you aren’t going to change or fix them. It isn’t your job and I don’t think you really want that job anyway. No one - and I repeat no one - changes their behavior unless and until they want to change their behavior. So, what can you do? The only person you can change is yourself. So, focus on changing your pattern of emotional and behavioral response to the difficult people in your life so that you make healthy and productive emotional and behavioral choices that benefit you now and in the long term!

Third, manage your emotions in your dealings with these people. Learn to depersonalize their behavior. This is what I suggested at the outset and is perhaps the most important piece of advice I can offer. Don’t become defensive with your difficult person. This will only fan the fire. Don’t play their game (it may be a game in their mind by the way even if it is not a game to you). Recognize that they act the way they do because this strategy believe it or not has worked well for them before in similar situations. This doesn’t mean that their behavior is positive, healthy, or that it produces the results that you or I would consider productive but rather that it meets their needs, emotional or behavioral, not necessarily in a rational or productive way that you or I would understand. Don’t expect or try to understand them as this isn’t going to change these people or their pattern of behavior.

Do seek support from others. Depending on the seriousness of the situation, you may find it useful, for example, to keep a dated written record of your interactions with your difficult person. Depending on who the difficult person is it may be useful to discuss the situation with your advisor, a trusted friend and/or colleague. Consider seeking professional support through your Human Resource Management department.

Finally, as with anything in life, recognize that dealing with difficult people is a skill worth learning and that as a skill it is one you can cultivate with practice. Commit to assess past incidents and learn from them: Who was involved? What happened? How did you feel? How did you respond? How do you wish you had responded? What could you do differently in the future to affect a positive outcome to a similar incident?

Dealing with aggressive, difficult people

Be clear with aggressive difficult people about how you want or don’t want to be treated and don’t allow them to treat you otherwise. If you are upset by something that your aggressive difficult person says, you can respond with a comment like: “That wasn’t nice. Please do not speak to me like that.”

If you anticipate unpleasantness in meeting with your aggressive difficult person, meet them in a neutral location, one in which you feel safe. If your aggressive person uses indirect or covert tactics, bring them out into the open, name the offending comments or actions and directly question your aggressive difficult person about their verbal attacks. If appropriate, consider asking a colleague or supervisor to be present when you meet with this person. If the difficult person is your supervisor, consider inviting their supervisor to be present or invite a mutually respected third party.

If your difficult person becomes angry, don’t allow them to make you angry or upset. If you do become upset, try counting to ten before you say anything. If you feel you are going to cry or say something you will regret, excuse yourself, go to the restroom or step outside and compose yourself. Don’t let your difficult person’s poor behavior harm or eat away at you: Consider doing something physical like vigorous exercise, cleaning, or a relaxing, calming activity like yoga or painting. You may also find it therapeutic to vent your anger and frustration on paper or on your computer. However, if you choose to do this, be sure to delete, if an electronic document, or shred it, if on paper, least your words take on an unwanted life of their own, which will only exacerbate the situation with your difficult person and/or backfire on you.

Once your anger and frustration have subsided, pat yourself on the back for handling a difficult situation well, process the situation, and plan (time, location, script) your next conversation with the difficult person.

Dealing with passive difficult people

Passive difficult people crave approval but feel unqualified and therefore are unable to take the actions they need to in order to earn the approval and respect they seek. Since they feel that they are unable to meet expectations and they can’t admit that they may be noncommittal or feign agreement when asked to perform a task or work with others on a project but will likely be among the first to blame other people when things don’t work out. The best strategy for dealing with passive difficult people is to meet their misbehavior head on and bring it out into the open. For example if your passive difficult person misses an important deadline, offer to meet with them and inquire why. They may feel unable to perform the task assigned and unable to acknowledge that openly. If this turns out to be the case, offer to provide them assistance in order to complete the assigned task.

Switching Research Groups

Sometimes problems arise in the undergraduate research experience that may make it wise to consider either leaving the research group or joining another lab. Sometimes the problem may involve your relationship with your advisor: it may become too personal (unwanted physical contact, e-mail messages, etc.) or abusive (students expected to perform personal work for the advisor, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde personality). Other problems may also arise - you may suddenly realize that the research area simply isn't interesting to you or that it is too challenging. It may also be that the opportunity for gaining hands on experience or exerting independence may be too limited or that you would prefer more assistance and/or direction. Finally, you may simply realize that the timing isn't right (course load too difficult, too many other obligations). In this section we'll discuss some of the pros and cons of switching research groups and suggest some approaches to leaving on good terms with your advisor.

If you are having difficulties it is important for you to be honest with yourself and your advisor. Consider whether the difficulties may be on your end of the relationship: exhaustion, lack of interest in the project, dislike of your advisor and/or other group members, or the project may be too challenging. Sometimes students expect their advisor to serve as a friend and mentor. Some students are lucky enough to find an advisor who becomes their mentor over time but that isn't the norm.

If you are thinking about leaving the group or switching labs, it is important that you discuss your concerns first with your advisor as sometimes the problems are due to misunderstandings, unarticulated expectations, etc. and the relationship may be repaired. Even if you have already made up your mind to leave (hopefully you will keep an open mind), it is important to speak face to face with your advisor and explain your concerns. This is especially important if you plan to later solicit a letter of recommendation from your advisor. Depending on the seriousness of the problems between you and your advisor you may alternately wish to discuss the situation with another trusted faculty member and/or ask him/her to serve as a mediator between you and your advisor. Some departments have an ombudsman for this specific purpose.

Last words: If you do decide to leave the laboratory or switch research groups, it is important to be professional when you make your move. Be sure to cooperate with your advisor in all ways, leaving all research materials (lab notebooks, etc.) behind and assisting him/her in the transition of your project, if required, and not to badmouth your advisor or research group to others when you leave. Although it may be therapeutic, this behavior is unprofessional and won't win you any friends.


Being an Effective Team Member

Increasingly due to the complexity of today's research problems, science and engineering research projects both in industry and academe are being accomplished through group rather than individual investigator efforts. Single investigators may not have the time, skills, and/or expertise to accomplish the various tasks that must be carried out successfully in order to successfully tackle the problem of interest. Working with a team requires a different skill set from that required in traditional single-investigator based research efforts. To be an effective team member it is essential to have good people skills and effective communication skills in addition to a strong technical skill set.

Some useful guidelines for being an effective team member include:

Respect Your Colleagues

If you are new to team-based projects, it is important to understand that everyone on the team brings with them unique technical expertise, knowledge, and experience that should be valued by all of the team members if the team is to be successful. This means that you should make a good effort to listen to other people's ideas and suggestions respectfully. In turn, you should expect the same from your colleagues. Note that this doesn't mean that you must become "best friends" with everyone on your team, i.e., you don't have to eat together, socialize together, and/or share any personal information with your colleagues unless you choose to. However, it is important that you are personable and that you make a good effort to pleasant when interacting with everyone.

Be Responsible

Be proactive. If you notice that there is a task that needs to be done and you have the skills to accomplish it, speak up and take on that task. Be dependable - do your fair share of the work and strive to accomplish any assignments in a timely fashion so that the team can meet any deadlines. Be accountable. If you agree to take on a specific task, it is important for you to follow through on your promise and if you encounter technical difficulties in meeting your obligations to bring this information to the attention of your group as soon as possible so alternatives can be explored and any goals met.

Communicate Effectively

Good communication skills are essential in teamwork. This means you should strive to be open to other people's ideas. Listen thoughtfully and be enthusiastic in your support of their ideas if warranted. Take the initiative to share your own ideas and do so respectfully. A good guideline to follow in dealing with others is the "Golden Rule": "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" Bottom line: Assume the best of your teammates and in turn give your teammates your personal best.

Conflict is Inevitable

Whenever you work with people, conflict is inevitable. Each of us brings with us different views on just about everything. So, it should make sense to you that if the team is to be successful, members cannot simply ignore or complain about problems that threaten the accomplishment of the team's goals. Team members need to identify roadblocks to productivity and bring these in a helpful, positive way to the attention of the team to ensure its success. Being able to deal with emotions and emotional issues in a productive way for all involved or emotional intelligence is a critical skill in team-based work. Managed poorly, conflict can stymie creativity, impede teamwork, and even cause the team to fail to meets its goals and/or deadlines. If members have problems, it is important for them to bring these problems out in the open for discussion by the group without assigning blame, which does little if anything to solve a problem. Although tempting, gossiping with colleagues about difficult team members only creates tension, may get back to them (creating more tension), and erects barriers that won't get the work done. In concluding this section, it is useful to recognize that conflict isn't necessarily a bad thing. Conflict, managed productively, can lead to new ideas, more thoughtful decisions, and superior results.

Give Credit Where Credit is Due

Team efforts are also different in terms of how credit is apportioned. Consequently, it is important to support good ideas, to give credit where credit is due, and to assertively speak up when you have made a significant contribution that merits recognition.