Five Tips on Managing Student / Advisor Workflow in 2021

Nov. 29, 2020, 9:38 a.m.

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In our latest webinar, our guests, Pier Luigi Ingrassia (CeSi) and Luca Ragazzoni (CRIMEDIM) spoke about their experiences in 2020, and their predictions for 2021. Both admitted that 2020 had been a difficult year for research. Many advisors were extremely busy with their clinical duties and had much less time for research activities than they had previously. Decreased ability to keep in contact with their advisors often made it difficult for students to keep their enthusiasm and momentum for their projects.

The webinar also included a number of very knowledgeable participants, who shared their experiences and predictions.

While technology has provided us with many new tools to better manage student-advisor workflow in the era of distance learning, many of the same problems remain. And many new ones have surfaced.

The combination of excellent guest speakers and fantastic audience participation led to five major tips on how students and advisors can thrive in 2021:

1. Embrace Online Learning

For students and advisors alike, 2021 will likely be another year of distance learning. Our panel recommended using this time to explore the wide variety of tools available. Learning to create effective networks via electronic means may be one of the most important and the most difficult tasks. As it's very common to become quickly overwhelmed with the sheer volume of online information, the panel recommended being selective and searching for those opportunities most likely to benefit you. 2021 will be a time for all of us to embrace the acquisition of new "soft skills" in using online tools.

2. Set Clear Goals

Having clear goals has always been the number one priority in any research project, but, will be more important than ever in 2021. Having a clear research question is the first step, and picking a research question for which the student has a passion was cited as one of the best ways to keep enthusiasm high. Making sure that both student and advisor are in agreement about the methodology is also important. The advisor should also take a primary role in ensuring that the scope of the research project always remains manageable for the student.

When I work with students in Master’s Degree programs, the most common first step is narrowing the research problem. Usually, this means reducing the scope and focusing on a narrow and specific question, and finding the simplest possible way to answer it. Once this part of the project is set down, often the rest of the study methodology and analysis becomes much more simple to create.

Set Clear Goals
Set Clear Goals

3. Select a Communication Strategy

There appears to be no single communication strategy that is right for everyone. Some members of the panel preferred instant messaging platforms, and praised the immediacy and simplicity of the communication method. Others felt that instant messaging created an unrealistic expectation of immediate response, and preferred email as less invasive to the personal lives of both the student and advisor. Many participants had tried various types of project management software, but none seemed to be ideal for research.

Obviously, at Stat59 we prefer the ease of use of the Stat59 Web App to allow effortless information sharing.

Whatever strategy you choose, it is important to establish expectations. How fast should the response be? Do you expect a response after work hours? What about weekends?

As distance communication will likely be the norm in 2021, we will all be expecting to see each other much less in person. This can be very difficult for many researchers, especially clinical researchers, who may have become accustomed to seeing their colleagues in person and making short, but frequent check-ins such as "how is the project going?" Setting regular "check-in" meetings, on a weekly or other scheduled basis, can be an ideal way to keep momentum going.

Select a Communication Strategy
Select a Communication Strategy

4. Set Clear Expectations

Who will do the literature search? Who will do the statistical analysis? Who will write the paper?

When setting expectations, advisors should always keep the education and background of the student in mind. In many programs, the students will have a wide range of previous research experience. Expectations must be tailored to this experience.

One of our guests suggested that advisors make a short video or document that firmly sets down the responsibilities of the student and advisor.

When I am working as an advisor I will set down the expectations explicitly before "signing on" as the advisor. I ask students to read the Ethical Statistics Checklist and agree to all the points before we set down a study protocol. In addition, we agree initially on who will be the first and last author of the paper.

5. Be Realistic About Time

2021 will likely be stressful for all of us regarding time management.

From a professional point of view both advisors and students will likely continue to see the volume of their clinical duties vary throughout the year. Many advisors are not full-time researchers, and find that the "part-time" job of research must take a lower priority when compared to their clinical duties.

2021 will also likely be difficult from a personal perspective. As the pandemic continues, both advisors and students will often find that commitments of personal safety and family safety will leave little time for optional activities.

In a previous blog post We spoke to Dr Eddy Lang from the University of Calgary who echoed the importance of setting protected time for research projects. This panel recommended the same; that advisors and students have an open and honest discussion about time. The sense of energy created while designing a research project can be intoxicating. Many researchers enthusiastically over-estimate their time availability and soon find they are unable to keep up with their research commitments.

Best Advice: Be Flexible

Perhaps the most important overlying theme of the webinar was the need to be flexible. Undoubtedly, 2021 will be a taxing year for all of us from both a personal and professional perspective. Advisors should be flexible: try to be understanding if students cannot keep all the deadlines or run into difficulties with data collection. Students should be flexible: recognize that advisors may not answer your requests as fast as they would like to.

Do you want a quick visual recap of our webinar? Get our Five Tips on Managing Student / Advisor Workflow in 2021 infographic.

By: Jeffrey Franc

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