Tuesday, December 17, 2013

How to approach a research project mentor

Dear Students:

Just so there aren't any hurt feelings, let me tell you right off the bat that I am not taking any research project mentees at all for the next school year. When I tell you "no", you aren't the only one.

Why not? Because I've decided to take a break. Mentorship is a significant time investment for me, and more than that, it's an emotional investment as well. I hate to see students fail, so when I do take on mentees, I do my darnedest best to see them succeed. This year, I mentored seven groups. All of them passed. My success rate, I think, for the past four years has been 100%. Doesn't this mean that I'm doing a good job? Yes, yes, it does. But it's also worn me out. That's why I'm taking a break.

Nevertheless, you're going to ask anyway. And despite the fact that I will say "no", here are some suggestions:

First and foremost, please do not shove a mentorship form in front of me and ask me to sign it. It's rude. You're not going to win me over that way.

Instead, try the following:

1. Introduce yourself.

"Hello, Mr. Cimafranca. I am [insert name] and this is my partner, [insert here]."

If I do know you, perhaps take some time to say hello anyway.

"Hello, Mr. Cimafranca. You're looking mighty fine today. Have you been working out?"

2. State your business.

"We're working on our research proposal this semester. Can we take some time to talk about our project with you?"

3. Give a quick summary of your research project. State it in seven words or less.

"We want to...

"...pinpoint causes of network slowdown in school..."

"...identify speech markers in contemporary teen slang..."

"...determine ethnic association by measuring forehead widths..."

4. Present your research problem. What, specifically, is your research question?

"We want to find out which activities are using up the most bandwidth in school, what time they happen, and who's doing them. We'll do this by analyzing usage logs from TSO. We want to know why this is happening and what recommend steps to improve the situation."

"We want to see the effect of online communications such as memes and hashtags on the slang that teenagers use. We plan to mine blogs and forums to trace their provenance and history. We also want to see how local usage tracks against usage elsewhere."

"We want to see if there is a strong correlation ethnicity against physiognomic features. We plan to measure the foreheads of 500 students, match that against their place of origin and the places of origin of their parents."

Note: it cannot be of the form "we want to see if we are able to build such-and-such a program."

5. Talk about what you've done so far. Have you read the relevant papers? Have you collected preliminary data? Have you got the software running?

6. Be truly excited about what you're doing. If it doesn't fire you up, it's not worth doing.

"We believe this project is important because..."

7. Close with the invitation.

"It's a challenging project and so we feel we would benefit from someone with experience in this subject area. Could we ask you ask you to be our mentor?"

8. Whatever the response, say thank you. It's for the time I spent listening to you and asking you questions. And it's just good manners.


For now, my answer will still be "No." But don't feel bad, because that's what I tell everybody.