Financial Realities and Mentorship:Summer Fellows edition

Apr 28 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I started this post a while ago, and it got lost in the long list of  Drafts.

But it's come up, because it's time at my almost-MRU for picking summer fellows for research.

Firstly, a word about my almost-MRU. Where I was before at a real high-flying MRU, everyone had money, the students not excepted. The students at that medical school were being trained to be leaders in medicine. They were cosseted and supported and nurtured. They also tended to be rich, by virtue of the inescapable logic that med schools want people who have Done Things, including shadowing of physicians. As one of the students I interviewed here said "I didn't know any doctors to shadow, I didn't have time, working two minimum wage jobs, to shadow anyone".

Fast forward: Potty leaves MRU, goes to almost-MRU in the middle of rural lower-kukamundaville, where someone, really and truly said to me: "You're an XYZ (minority)? I've never met one of those before."

So, back to almost  MRU. It is a medical school in the lower quintile or quartile or something. Someone has to be there, so the upper third or quintile or quartile can sleep easy at night, knowing how good they are.

Almost-MRU fills a niche. They train primary care/family medicine/ people who are committed (mostly) to returning to rural and underserved urban communities. They  try to help financially to help first generation types get medical degrees. The heart is in the right place, the follow-through, not always.

We have a program to bring first year med students into our labs for the summer. They pay these summer fellows $3000. But, as one person who I taught in the fall, and thought would be great in my lab,  said to me: "I'm going back home, because I've got a job that will pay me more. It won't look as good on my record, but I need the money." First generation kids from blue-collar families are acutely aware of the interest clock ticking away on their educational loans.

I have, and will try this year (though almost-MRU doesn't make it easy) to push a little extra money to the kids who work in my lab. And yes, at my age, 22 year olds look like kids to me. They have set levels for these fellowships, and I'm perceived as rocking the boat when I try to do something different.

But I have colleagues who take "fellows"as "volunteers". I have a lot of trouble with this. To me, this is perpetuating all the class distinctions that we try so hard, or at least give lip service to eradicating. On the o ther hand, some of these are junior faculty struggling towards tenure. They don't have a lot of money. They may not yet have a major grant. Some years almost-MRU gave them a fellow, and subsidized this. But sometimes not. Some people have NSF grants, and 3K is not easy to squeak out of that level of funding.

This problem sets up tremendous cognitive dissoncence in my head and in my heart. I just don't know. Everyone is making free choices, but, but, but. I don't say anything, but I  have lost sleep worrying about how I could make this better.

If we are serious about giving everyone a chance, we can't just "hire the best candidate". The best candidate may not have the best record. The person who can do the most good, to my lab, to science, to medicine, to humanity, may be hidden behind a CV of minimum wage service jobs.

I have always found that people who worked what I consider real jobs, McDonalds, cleaning bed pans in the hospital, bathing folks in a rehab SNF, waitressing, fixing cars, selling stuff at Walmart, are actually far better in my lab. I can teach anyone how to do  surgery, how to make an electrode, how to collect data. I cannot, in a summer, teach a work ethic, teach a commitment to honesty and truth and Finding  Out Things.

So I've found three fellows for my lab this summer. We shall see.


8 responses so far

  • I agree with you 100%. I am in the minority at ProdigalU in that I do not take summer "volunteers", and do not think summer "volunteers" should be allowed. I worry that the existence of summer "volunteers" sends the message that science is only for people who can afford not to work, and that 'volunteers" make PIs less interested in hiring summer students, since they can get someone to do the work for free. I think all students in the lab should be compensated for the work they do. If I cannot offer money (which is unfortunately all too common), I only take students who are eligible for work/study (lab work qualifies), students who have fellowships of some kind, or students interested in research for credit. I realize that this requirement cuts off students who don't qualify for work/study and don't have credit space from working in my lab, but this is the decision I am most comfortable with. Sometimes I am tempted, though.

    I also agree 100% that students who have held outside jobs have the best work ethic. I don't actually use CGPA or any particular thing on the CV as a criteria in selecting students for my lab. I meet interested students in person, and decide after talking to them about their past experiences (work or school related), interests and goals.

  • chall says:

    I wonder how many of people at "high end MRUs" realize how skewered their summer people are?

    Anyway, volunteers and interns, similar word for "work without pay" that seems to be increasingly popular in several sectors. While it's a commendable thing to do, and for some areas perfectly acceptable - I don't agree that summer fellows should be allowed to be volunteers.

    we have a regulation at my work that 'volunteer work' can't be anything that you might hire someone for, as in a full job. It's not clear cut of course, and we end up with some people using this and "skirting the line". We also have the distinction "class credit" or "pay" to make it even more complicated, but trying to show some sort of idea that volunteer work isn't something that should happen.

    As for the work experience, I personally think I learned a LOT working as a mailperson back in high school and during summers in college. It was not only a team approach (you got done sorting your mail, you helped your team mate with theirs, when everyone was done you all were done) but the third day on the job all us kids got a stern talking to by the foreman who explained "6 am means ready for work 6am. it does not mean "coming to work at 6.02 and then changing clothes and be ready to work at 6.10. three tardinesses = dock of pay and if repeated termination". we were on time after that ^^ I think about that a lot when I look at people's work experience and what I ask them to tell me about the job.

  • ImDrB says:

    The very best undergraduate worker I have ever hired in any capacity had worked since day 1 of her Freshman year on third shift at Waffle House, plus assorted other part time jobs on campus. This kid worked non stop, food service, janitorial, lab crew...whatever would pay her and work around her class schedule. She was on the track for pharmacy school, and she knew to the penny how much she owed for undergrad and how much she would need for pharmacy school. She got accepted on the first interview, to the school she wanted, and is set to graduate later this year. She was never at the very top of her class, but she's the most competent, most dedicated, hardest working student I ever met.

    That's my bar for student workers. That's the level of work I try to push them toward. Some get there naturally, some need expectations clearly laid out, and some absolutely refuse.

  • Ola says:

    Unfortunately at my R1 MRU, the summer interns are all done via a centralized program that is competitive entry. As such, simple criteria like GPA and prior experience are frequently used, along with a smattering of URMs to meet the affirmative action quotas. What this results in is a bipolar candidate pool for doling out to the labs... at one end the privileged white kids, and at the other end dirt poor URMs. There's literally nothing in between. Anyone who's poor and white and working Mickey D's to maintain a 3.2 GPA is S.O.L.

  • anon says:

    I did lots of research for credit, and always found it ironic that I was paying tuition to essentially volunteer. In some ways, research for credit is MORE problematic. Welcome to academia, where we vastly underpay people for their work (think adjuncts)

    • potnia theron says:

      I think that it is possible to justify credit for research, in some situations. You can't have students wash bottles, make media, or just feed animals. They need to be doing a genuine learning experience, that includes teaching how to do research, and producing an end product.

      But, part of the reason we have adjuncts is that people are willing to be adjuncts.

    • I rarely get students who want to do research for credit over the summer--those that do are usually taking other summer classes and want to add a research elective since they are enrolled anyway. At ProdigalU, research for credit courses require students to be trained in research, and to produce a final report that describes what they did for the course. I am sure there are abuses, but in my department, there is pretty decent oversight just in case. That said, in my experience, PIs that take undergrads in research for credit programs are actually interested in providing a good learning experience for the student.

      During the summer, PIs in my department do pay undergrads to do research (though less and less due to budget constraints), but during the academic year, most paid undergrad positions are of the glassware washing variety. An undergrad looking to do research during the academic year is much more likely to get that experience for credit. This is a departmental culture thing, though, so YMMV.

    • A Salty Scientist says:

      At my Flyover U, research for credit is not a bad deal if the experience is actually enriching, because those credits count towards upper-level major requirements. Essentially, research can substitute for 1-2 upper-level courses). During the summer, I do pay undergraduates to perform research to help combat some of the above-mentioned disparities.

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