should've realized in the beginning
April 20, 2011 7:01 PM   Subscribe

Help me figure out what to do about this undergrad research situation

Several semesters ago, I started doing research as an undergrad. Things went smoothly for a few semesters, I really enjoyed what I was doing.

This semester, however, things have been particularly trying, and my research advisor is unhappy that I basically haven't accomplished much of anything new this semester. I fully understand why she's annoyed.

She's asked me to give some reasons as to my lack of work and finish what I set out to do. I don't know if I should give some vague excuses as reasons, because my real reasons are either kinda flimsy (I slacked off because I felt swamped), or too personal to share (a lot of relationship drama).

I could explain that I'm also working two jobs to support myself, but the problem is I was also doing this the last few semesters, so it's not much of an excuse. I'm just tired of dealing with so many things, and it probably would've been smarter for me to quit at the beginning of the semester rather than in the middle, but there's nothing I can do now.

There are two problems:

(1) I'm doing the research for credits, and could potentially receive a 'fail' grade. This shouldn't matter so much for my future though.
(2) I don't want to alienate her.

So basically, should I attempt to finish what I can this semester and then explain that I will be quitting next semester? Or should I just explain that I can't continue and take the 'fail'?
posted by anonymous to Education (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Personally, I would meet with her and be honest but non-specific about the nature of your relationship drama, something like, "I apologize for not coming to you sooner and letting you know what was going on. This semester, between my two jobs, other coursework, and a serious personal situation, I began to feel overwhelmed and just haven't been able to maintain the quality of work I produced last semester. I let myself get way behind on this research as a result. My instinct is to do XYZ in order to make up for some of that, but I wanted to ask if you have other ideas. What are your suggestions?"

I suggest this because your real mistake was keeping your overwhelmed-ness to yourself rather than proactively working out a solution with your research advisor--there's nothing wrong with having a bad semester, and adding relationship drama to two jobs, coursework, and a research position would throw anyone off balance. I think you could do a lot to repair your relationship with your advisor if you take steps not only to make up the work but also to bring her in on the planning process for how you do that make-up work.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:16 PM on April 20, 2011 [6 favorites]

Are you getting paid for your time doing research or is this strictly for grades?

If its strictly for grades, full disclosure. Google the program that you're doing the research in - I was talking with a friend today who had a *completely useless*, bumbling, wasteful, annoying, and disgusting undergrad student doing an honour's/something-something/workstudy in his lab, and according to the website detailing the expectations of the supervisors (both grad student and PI) is that the lowest grade they're allowed to give is 80%; any lower and they'll have to submit a written statement regarding why the lower grade was given. This completely useless and universally hated student was given an 80. This was a paid position, btw.

If you're getting some money from this; you've come across as kinda flakey and won't be renewed. Being upfront - not offering excuses but presenting your situation - might salvage future good references. Turning things around and making documentable accomplishments in the near future can really help secure better reference letters in the future.

Then again, it depends on the supervisor. But you never can tell from appearances whether they'll understand a) external jobs (!), b) physical distress (swamped), c) emotional distress (personal drama). I have a super-successful, tough-as-nails, self-sufficient, self-bootstrapping, and all-around ass-kicking (but humble) supervisor but she's totally given a free ride to a student of hers who is a total weak sister with no *real* adversity and no motivation who doesn't accomplish much of anything.
posted by porpoise at 7:47 PM on April 20, 2011

I would just let her know, in a professional-sounding way, that you're having a rough semester. You don't need to go into details, but let her know that you are working to support yourself as well. Many undergrads don't have to have jobs, so the fact that you've been able to juggle and balance so far speaks well of you. Your PI should be made aware that you are aware of your being out of balance right now, but don't let her assume it's because of your social life or any such thing. You don't have to quit now and take a fail if you can talk to her about your plan for getting back on track.

In the end, she will hopefully be able to write you recommendations or be a reference for you. If you handle this right, she can sing praises about your ability to multitask and deal with multiple commitments. So there's really a potential for turning this into a positive thing for you.
posted by Knowyournuts at 8:06 PM on April 20, 2011

I was in a similar situation a couple weeks ago: My lack of focus and inconsistent appearance in lab left my research project in jeopardy, and was beginning to have an effect on other aspects of my PI's and grad advisor's research.

I realized that this was the case, and it took every ounce of my self determination to even approach my PI to work out a solution. The thing is though, is that professors know what it is like to grind through a semester, and that sometimes things just kind of fall apart. I'm convinced that my redemption came from my previous work ethic both in lab, and in the course that I took from my PI in the previous year. The hardest part for me wasn't hearing that I was doing poorly in lab as I was well aware that I had slipped, it was just mustering up the will to actually initiate the conversation and rededicate myself to the project.

If I were you, I wouldn't go in to this trying to justify your poor performance with a list of reasons, I would go in and stress that you realize that you are doing poorly and that you want to do everything in your power to recommit to your research and get back to your previously demonstrated reliability and effectiveness.
posted by clearly at 8:45 PM on April 20, 2011

I once was in a situation like yours -- as an undergrad, I was doing some research for a professor, slacked off, and was too embarrassed to confront the situation. Now I wish the professor had contacted me and set up a graceful exit as yours as doing. In retrospect, he just figured I was unreliable, used the research I'd already produced, and didn't push me to finish anything. I'd rather he had spoken up when I was too ashamed to, so I could have taken the opportunity to wrap up my piece with a bow and salvage it into something I was proud of.

I could explain that I'm also working two jobs to support myself, but the problem is I was also doing this the last few semesters, so it's not much of an excuse.

But your workload in school has probably also increased over the past few semesters, as you have advanced through the easier courses and into harder ones. Also, OMG, school plus relationship drama plus research plus two jobs?! That's SO MUCH, and I applaud you for keeping yourself going as well as you have!

You are not the first research assistant this professor's had who has slipped up in time management, and you won't be the last, just as doctors and nurses see people with embarrassing conditions all the time. It is not a mortal sin to have lost momentum, and coming up with a short, realistic plan for the rest of the semester will make up for much in her eyes.

Agreeing with Clearly, Knowyournuts, and Meg_Murry.
posted by brainwane at 7:32 AM on April 21, 2011

Oh, and as someone who's managed other people: Bad news is better than a surprise. Take a lesson from this! When as you foresee that your availability and reliability will be reduced, warn your supervisor so you and s/he can plan appropriately.
posted by brainwane at 7:34 AM on April 21, 2011

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