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Managing Minions: Establishing your track record

August 2, 2012

August just started and that means that your summer minion’s period of indentured servitude is coming to an end.  If you’ve played your cards right, your minion may have actually gotten one result that anyone besides you may tangentially care about and now it is time to tell the world – or at least your PI – all about it.  For you to get the most out of the mentoring experience, you should take the following steps to ensure that your investment continues to pay dividends.

1.  Set up a meeting with you, your minion and your PI.  Make it formal.  Your minion should feel a little scared.

2. Tell your minion how important this meeting is for them, mentioning their letter of recommendation.  This serves the dual purpose of signaling to your minion that you expect that they will ask for a letter while motivating them to nail down those last few experiments, rather than just slacking off for the last couple weeks when they’ve finally attained a reasonable level of competency.

3. In advance of the meeting, send your PI an e-mail that details the project, your minion’s accomplishments and your minion’s strengths as a budding scientist.  Write this email in the formalized, glowing language used in letters of recommendation.  The subject line should be your minion’s full name.  Your PI will never delete this e-mail because xe will immediately recognize how valuable these two paragraphs will be in two years when your minion is applying to med school.  As your PI copy-pastes this text directly into their letter of recommendation they will be reminded of just how awesome *you* are.

So you’ve set up a joint meeting, now you need to make it a productive use of everyone’s time.  Your minion’s performance certainly reflects upon hir, but it also reflects very much upon you.  Without your guidance, the meeting you just signed everyone up for will be painfully awkward.  You know all about how to create a compelling talk.  Your minion however likely has not the first damn clue.  At this point, your minion’s success is your success. With this in mind:

4. At least a week before the “big meeting”, have a big picture science chat with your minion, using a copy of your most relevant slide deck.  Give your intro, tell your minion that they will probably want to introduce the subject in a similar way and then give your intro to them again.  Watch them try to memorize every word you say on the spot.  As you walk through the presentation, insert a blank slide or two at points where you think they will need to introduce any new concepts and put a key word on that slide to remind them what to put on it.  Delete most of the irrelevant sections saying “you won’t need to talk about this”, but leave at least one data section in as an example.  You’ll save time overall if you spend a couple of minutes showing them how to control line weights and font size in your graphing program of choice right now, reminding them that font size may not be smaller than about 14 pts AFTER they scale the image for their slide.  NOTE: If there is information in the presentation that is confidential for whatever reason, make sure that they understand where and how they can talk about those parts.  Your little meeting may not be the only time they use these slides.

6. Now, some people have trouble with this step, but I’ve found that it is the best way to get a minion to put together a reasonable presentation: email this modified presentation to your minion.  Seems obvious, right?  All of the images, all of the references, all of the structure.  Give it to them.  Your PI will not be confused and think that your minion is some sort of super-genius.  Xe has seen your slides before.  Xe knows the origin of the genius that will be on display.  Xe will be relieved that xe will not have to cringe through an intro so full of holes and misconceptions that stunned silence is the only possible response.

7.  A few days before the meeting, ask to see your minion’s presentation.  If they have actually worked hard on it, inevitably they will reveal an amazing misunderstanding about something fundamental to the project.  Also, their slides will be so ugly that it will hurt to look at them.  Try to be gentle as you school them.  It may be advisable to repeat this step a time or two, possibly allowing your minion to practice what they are going to say, however repetitions of this step are a minion-lead rather than a mentor-lead initiative.  NOTE:  Some minions, usually the perfectionists, will choke and try to weasel out of showing you their presentation precisely because they realize that they are going to reveal amazing misunderstanding and that their slides are ugly.  Don’t let them.

8. Right before the meeting, bolster your minions confidence by listing specifically all that they have accomplished.  Something along the lines of “Wow!  This project is so awesome.  It is great that you could show this and that and this other thing.  We couldn’t show this but we totally ruled out that.  It really lays the groundwork for us to nudge a long standing paradigm!  Are you sure you can’t stay just a little longer?”  You want your minion to walk into their big meeting feeling confident.

9. At the meeting, put your minion in the hot seat and make them do all the talking.  You’ve got their back for when the conversation gets out of their depth, but this meeting needs to appear to be all about them.  It helps to put your hand over your mouth.  You’ve been working with a highly motivated, intelligent individual.  Give them their moment.  And enjoy it.

10. After the big meeting make sure you have a final electronic copy of the presentation for your own purposes later on.  Also have them put a print out of their slides in their notebook.  If you’re in that kind of lab, have someone snap a picture of you with your minion and your PI.  Warm fuzzies for everybody!  And ta-dah!  You’ve just established yourself as someone with a strong track record of mentoring minions.

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  1. Thanks for this awesome advice! I never thought about doing it this way, but now I will because I had an awesome minion over the summer! Thanks again!

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