Expectations & Assessment

(or, Where Do Research Grades Come From?)


     As with any class, there are specific expectations for students involved in research, and the assessment (grade) is based on how well these expectations are achieved.  In this research group, expectations are not at all difficult to achieve, and so doing well is not overly challenging.  In fact, for the most part, the expectations are mostly common sense.

     At the beginning of each semester, you'll be asked to complete a short form indicating which hour-long time slots you plan to be working in the lab.  For every hour's credit you're enrolled for, it's expected that you'll put in five hours/week in the lab.  These can be during normal business hours, in the evenings, or on weekends.  There are only a few guidelines about this:
  • Regardless of experience, working alone is never permitted!!.
  • First-semester researchers must schedule at least four slots during the weekdays (M-F, between 9-5).
  • Experienced researchers must schedule at least two hours/week during weekdays.
  • If you must miss a scheduled time, you must inform me (or someone else designated as lab coordinator, like a postdoc or senior researcher) beforehand.

Other expectations not directly related to lab work include (but are not limited to) the following:
  • Attend all group meetings on time.  Lateness results in cleaning the lab, under my gentle guidance, for 30min; skipping one altogether allows you to clean for an hour.  Multiple infractions results in multiple penalties.
  • Perform assigned group jobs on time and meticulously.  The group cannot function without everyone doing their part.  Jobs are rotated every semester, so no one person is stuck with one of the more time-consuming tasks for long.
  • Show interest and enthusiasm for your project(s)!  Just going through the motions, like a cook following a recipe, will slow your progress; more importantly, you'll learn very little.
  •     Remember than as your seniority increases, so does your function as a role model for younger researchers.  Like it or not, they look to you as an example of how to conduct themselves in the research group.  If you're lackadaisical and don't seem to care much, they'll follow your lead.  
          Also, as your experience increases, the expectations of your research quantity, quality, and independence increase proportionately, since you'll become more fluent and practiced at organic synthesis.  In other words, the work that would earn an "A" in your first semester might only be worth a "B" for the following semester.
  • Keep your bench area clean and orderly!  It is simply impossible to work efficiently on a bench with junk scattered everywhere with unlabeled containers, samples stored in group glassware, etc.  Plus, it's a terrible role model.


     Several years ago, the Chemistry faculty voted to try to standardize grades in research, since grades from different research directors varied wildly.  For example, in one group, everyone got an "A" - evidently, just being in that research group was sufficient!

     Anyway, the policy is that the grade will be based on three areas - the "Three P's" -  each of which is worth about 1/3 of the grade:
  • Productivity
  • Paper
  • Professionalism
     In our group, this is best measured by the number of reactions a researcher runs in a semester - not the number of successful reactions, since no one can predict how well a project may conform to expectations.  In general, anyone who does not run a minimum of 10 reactions per credit hour in a semester will not get an "A". Consider that, with a 15-week semester and at least five hr/week, you spend at least 75 hr in the lab per semester. Anyone past their first semester should surely be able to run a reaction in about eight hours!

     The paper you submit at the end of semester is hugely important; despite this, in a typical semester, at least one or two students turn in papers that were obviously rush jobs, don't conform to the guidelines, and in general are embarrassingly bad.  No one who does this will get an "A".  Considering that I now edit a draft and return it prior to the paper's due date, there's really no excuse for not doing an excellent job.

     This is the most subjective area, but is the easiest to do well in.  Rather than list a bunch of attributes, let's look at the characteristics of a researcher who shows a high degree of professionalism:
  •      Highly professional researchers are in the lab when they promised to be there, because they honor their commitments.  If they can't be there, they call me or the lab coordinator beforehand.  They think in advance about upcoming reactions, and make sure they know the mechanisms of these reactions before running them.  If they don't know the mechanism, they consult textbooks and other sources first, rather than run to me, looking for a quick answer (of course, if they can't figure it out on their own, they'll come to me, since it's imperstive to know how reactions that you're investigating work).  When doing research, they think carefully about what's happening rather than follow a recipe, and are sure to record anything interesting.  They gather all important data about reaction products (m.p., IR, TLC, crude weight), and interpret spectra themselves - not running to me, waving the spectrum,  seeking quick answers.1
  •      Professional researchers grasp the big picture concerning their project(s), and can easily explain to anyone - especially non-chemists - why they're doing the work, what question(s) it'll answer, where it might lead if successful, etc.  They suggest solutions to problems they're having, rather than running to me before thinking about it - i.e., they show initiative.  If someone visits the lab, they like to show the person around (if this is appropriate), and describe in general how the lab operates and what several other group members are doing, in addition to their own project(s).  If they see something out of order in the lab - a dirty area, trash on the floor or in a sink, chemicals where they shouldn't be - they fix it, right then, just because it needs fixing. Of course, they stay on top of their own jobs, so that other group members don't have to take up the slack.  This arises from their sense of pride in their research, their laboratory, their research director, and the Department.
  •      Excellent researchers prepare sufficiently for group presentations so that they do a polished, professional job. They are proficient at searching the literature, looking for solutions to problems or for preparative methods for compounds they need.2  They're enthusiastic about their projects and proud of their work, not stopping research in a given day just because the clock says it's quitting time.  It's common for them to suggest solutions to problems they're having; in fact, they like to propose extensions of their project, rather than consider it a done deal when the specified work is finished.  It's also common for them to remind other group members - not dictate to them - that their group jobs need attention.

     It worth noting that, when I'm asked to write letters for students applying to graduate or medical school, I'm virtually always asked to comment specifically on some combination of the following:
  • initiative
  • ability to work with others
  • emotional maturity
  • resilience
  • work ethic
  • independence
  • integrity
  • effectiveness in speaking
  • effectiveness in writing
Occasionally, it's a good idea to spend several minutes with this list, and honestly assess how you would rate yourself in these categories. 
     Remember, too, that letters of reference are not automatically documents of pure praise - the chemistry community is small, and faculty who write inflated letters become known.  I write letters for my research students that are as positive as they can be, honestly, but I won't bend the truth. 
If you have the courage to ask, I'm also very happy to discuss with you how I'd rate you in these categories, and to suggest ways to improve.

1. This does NOT mean that you shouldn't come to me when you're stumped!  That's why I'm here - I just want you to think about it, try to solve the problem yourself, before coming to me for a quick answer.  This is the only way to learn how to interpret spectra, solve reaction problems, etc.
2. Literature searching is an acquired skill - that is, the best way to learn it is to do it.  In these days of computerized searches, especially with SciFinder Scholar, searches are quick, easy, and thorough.  If you need help in searching for anything, please let me know!

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