Defining success in summer research

Yesterday marked the first day of the summer research season. One of the things I really like about my job is the cycles of the academic year: the excitement and anticipation of the new school year every fall, the sense of exhaustion just before the break, autumn on campus (you can almost picture the tweed, I know), intermission between semesters, etc. Summer research with students is one of my favorite times.

I was at the dentist yesterday morning, and he was asking what projects I was working on in the lab for the summer. I told him a few of the new directions we were heading and he commented that he hoped everything went well and that we had a successful summer. That exchange started me thinking about what defines a successful summer for me, and it may not be exactly what you would think.

Of course the highest form of success for summer research is to generate publishable data, and I make this the clear goal for the students. In an ideal world, they would work on an important question, carry out carefully controlled experiments in a systematic way, and find a clear difference between their control and experimental treatments. Although the first 3 of these factors are under their control, there is no way to know the outcome of an experiment and its significance in advance, so I try not to think of success in terms of the outcomes of experiments and whether or not they represent publishable results. If I were at a research university, I’m sure I would have a different perspective, but I’m not, and the nature of working with undergraduates doesn’t permit this definition of success.

If the publishability of the results doesn’t determine the success of a summer research experience, what does? For me, I think summer research has been successful when a student has done real research. That means they grasped a question (see below for more on this), conceived of an experiment to test a hypothesis, performed the experiment, analyzed the data, and evaluated the results in light of their original hypothesis. Sometimes (hopefully) their work forms a unit on or around which other units can be built into a paper.

‘Grasping a question’ is not to say they get free reign to choose any topic they want. In my lab, students have to focus on an area that supports the direction of the lab as a whole. I think it’s important that they own the project to some degree, but the only way to ensure the importance of their project is to limit it to something in my area of expertise.

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