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How to Optimise Your Intern

Posted in: Dealing with Fellow Scientists
School children and teacher depicting the role of a mentor

Positive results, stable salaries, getting a Ph.D. in 4 years! If you couldn’t connect the dots, these are the most overrated phrases used in research. And the driving force for these is – expectations. You would expect the optimized protocol to work, but you see a bubble-sized hole in your section. This multiplied by the number of new experiments you need to fit into your thesis gives an estimate of the number of years you need to add until you’re ‘done’. You check your bank balance on the 3rd of a month and it stares back at you with holes wider than the ones in your sections.

As you carry your expectations on your back and successfully transition into a senior Ph.D. student, you also take on more responsibilities; specifically – mentoring an intern.

When an excited newbie (let’s call her Zupa) joins a lab, she has a brain brimming with questions, and more often than not, a heart full of expectations. Let’s look at her time in the lab grouped as different time zones:

Stage 1: t = 0 a.k.a D-DAY

Zupa gets a tour of the lab and sees the instruments buzzing, hissing, and farting. She meets the plethora of scientists in the lab and tries to get an idea of the different projects at various stages of progress on each workspace.

Make the intern feel comfortable! Show them around the lab and introduce them to lab members and all the other projects they see around. Give them a summary of how your project has evolved to date, and how they would be contributing to it. Another great way to incubate the fresher would be to suggest literature relating to the techniques to be applied, as these would have a feedback effect in reinstating the theoretical concepts.

Stage 2: t = Incubation Complete

Zupa slowly understands what each buzz, hiss, and fart mean, and how to navigate her way to achieve results. She tries to figure out why an optimized protocol does not work for her.

At this stage, since the intern would have gotten comfortable with the techniques, evaluate their understanding of the concepts with one-on-one discussions. Let them work independently as this would help them troubleshoot on their own, which again is a great way of learning. Also, exposure to people from other labs working on similar lines would expand the intern’s understanding of the project and make them look at it critically. Attending lab meetings and department seminars would help them get new ideas, learn new concepts, and is a great avenue for collaboration.
Probably the most important point would be to handle accidents reasonably. ‘I’m sorry but I broke the cuvette again’ is definitely not coddle-worthy, but they should be taught to be more cautious.

Stage n: (Can Be Experienced at Any Intermittent Timepoint)

Zupa and her mentor face a glitch in their project, and the 3 weeks they spent in trying to fix it has given no results but has taken away their hope. They drop their pipettes and go to their regular snack-shack. From discussing the various pain points in the procedure, they drift to the mechanism of frying food, to alien attacks.

Take your intern out to coffee from time to time! Bond over food, make a new friend, explore their brain. Being able to hold a healthy relationship in the lab as well as outside it will increase productivity and make the intern feel more comfortable and included, something crucial for the sustenance of a healthy professional relationship.

Stage 3: t = Saturation Point

As Zupa switches on the voltage box for the very last time, she unhooks and becomes one with the buzzing, hissing, and farting noises. She remembers how these instruments turned from cold, noisy devils from her first day in the lab to warm, smooth buddies.

Time for appreciation and feedback! Put them onto your network and recommend them to peers. However, mentors do face situations where the interns do not make the cut and face a dilemma: to tell them or not to tell them?! It is very important to carefully but surely tell them. Positive criticism works wonders and you would be doing the right thing by helping them re-align their energy into something well-suited for them.
After leaving, the biggest gift a mentor could give their intern would be to continue mentoring them even after they leave the lab. A quick hello from time to time, a forward about an opening, or a dark meme about negative results. Maybe you inspired them to believe that a Ph.D. is the most satisfying job, or perhaps you made them realize that their cup of tea, probably, is brewing tea.

Nevertheless, a mentor plays a key role in shaping the early stages of an intern’s career. These are some of the parameters that just might optimize your mentoring skills and your intern in the process.

To linear graphs and better fits!

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