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Managing minions: Narrative Arc

June 13, 2012

If I’m going to have a late night, I’ll video chat with the kids before bed from lab while I’m rocking out at the bench.  As we were finishing up our conversation recently, my older kid asks:

“What you’re doing, that’s your work?”

“Yes.”

“And you do that all day?”

“Well, yes.  Today I did this all day.”

“You know, mama”  Xe gentles hir tone and tells me, for my own good, in all seriousness, the obvious truth that I appear to be oblivious of: “Your work is pretty boring.”

While summer student projects should be repetitive, they need to have a narrative arc. Much of bench work is boring and repetitive.  You can’t make your minions one-trick ponies and expect them to keep doing that trick just because they can.  You’ll get the most out of them (and they’ll get them most out of the experience) if the reason for doing their trick so many times is made clear.  Give them your grand vision, tell them about the disease this work someday may cure, or the paradigm they might help shift.  Give them a few grandious sentences they can repeat to their parents and impress their friends with.  And then make clear exactly what their contribution can be to the work and why the work is critical and important.  The intense hour you put into them with the slides from your last group meeting and an enthusiastic conversation will pay huge dividends.  They’re all jazzed up to be doing SCIENCE in a real lab.  Keep it that way.

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