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A fellow graduate student said something to me the other day that really irked me. Shortly after I told him I'd been working with a few undergrads (UROPs), he asked me the question, "So do you know how to manage UROPs?", in this somewhat condescending tone implying that I didn't and he was about to tell me.

Anyway, so after I preened my ruffled feathers, and after he went away, I thought some more about the question and realized that there's one fundamental attribute about UROPs that, while I hadn't totally ignored, hadn't quite appreciated completely before. To me, the big difference is that undergrad research assistants are not employees, are not merely tools, and you can't manage or treat them like employees or tools, despite the fact that they are getting paid to work for your lab.

The majority of the UROPs that pass through our lab don't come for the pay. They come because they want to find out more about our field, about the research we do, and to see if they like it. Being MIT, they're almost all talented and quite competent. So there's no question about whether or not they can get something done. The question is whether or not we can find the proper motivation, and the right support system so they can do what they want to do.

Employees are often seen as mere resources and tools to get something done. If you need something done and either don't want to or can't do it yourself, you get someone else (who works for you) to do it for you, and you don't feel bad about it. Not so with UROPs. It's quite tempting to think, "gee, I'd love to analyze this data set in this way but don't feel like doing it myself" or "gee, it'd be cool to have the reults of this agonizingly tedious experiment but I can't be bothered to run it" and then make a UROP do it, but if you do that a lot, they start to think research sucks and never come back.

I guess you could expand this thought to not just students, but underlings (including employees) in general - people who work for you are not just tools, blah blah blah...

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