Thursday, July 13
I'm stuck. I have an undergraduate research assistant who seems like a very nice and conscientious person (that is, she seems to take the job seriously) working for me this summer, but she is unbelievably slow. I seriously cannot imagine how she can be as slow as she is with the work she is doing.

Sure, my expectations may be off. But I am comparing her productivity to that of RAs before her doing very similar work. And she is much much slower. So what to do? I don't want to go into attack mode. But this is not reasonable. I think she is interested in graduate school, and she won't cut it with this level of productivity. She's shy and reserved so I am additionally concerned that critical feedback will make her even more timid. I also don't want the quality of her work to go down just because I am asking her to be more efficient.

Do I just let it be and accept the fact that this was not a good investment? I think she will be able to finish what is absolutely crucial to get done by the end of the summer. But I had hoped for much more. It's just painful to watch how someone can be this slow.

Any suggestions on how to deal with a situation like this?


kodachrome said...

Is it possible the shyness is working against her speed thru some sort of confidence drain? If all her work comes in 100% perfect, maybe she's over-double-checking. Otherwise, I would try more frequent meetings and lots of praise for incremental increases in speed.

Turquoise Stuff said...

Thanks, Kodachrome. That's an interesting thought about her shyness affecting her productivity. I wonder if that's the case. I'm not so keen on the idea of more frequent meetings, but I think you're right that it may be what's needed. And praise may help the issue of how well she's doing.

Salmon Ella said...

OMG, are you my advisor?

Plaid said...

That's funny, Salmon Ella.:) I don't think we invited any undergrads to join so unless you're an undergrad (or unless Clear deceived me!) this can't possibly be a post about you. Then again, maybe Turquoise is just pretending that this post is about an undergraduate research assistant.

So I'm curious, Salmon, what reaction do you have from the other side of this situation?

Salmon Ella said...

Heh, well aside from the fact that the RA is [supposedly :)] an undergrad, the similarities between Turquoise's commentary about her RA and what I imagine my advisor must think of me are uncanny.

From my point of view, I would say that it never really helps to tell a slow person to just work faster. People like us need specific tips. For example, what are your exact expectations? It's hard to elaborate on this not knowing the nature of the work the RA is performing, but in my experience, if I have a vague assignment and no real idea of when it's supposed to be completed, I can take forever to do something. Help the RA develop specific goals; maybe tell her, "I'd like X done by Y date." If she is conscientious, then she will likely rise to the occasion.

Another thing, how accessible are you to the RA? Maybe she is stuck on something really simple but is too afraid to ask for your help. Maybe you should e-mail her every once in a while to check in and see if she has any questions. Being rather shy myself, I am much more comfortable conversing via e-mail, and since you don't want to have to meet with her more often, e-mail might be a better plan.

I think to a certain extent you are stuck with her slowness. I don't think it's realistic to expect that the quality of her work won't change if you ask her to speed up. You just have to ask yourself which is more important to you. I know my advisor has told me on more than one occasion that he doesn't expect things to be perfect when I send them his way, which I interpreted to mean that he values speed over quality. I do think you can help her to work more efficiently, but some people are just slower than others.

Turquoise Stuff said...

Thanks for the suggestions, Salmon. Interesting that you're convinced your advisor would think of you in this way. I wonder if it's the case.

It occurs to me that perhaps I should have been more specific about the nature of the slowness problem. There are at least two types of tasks that an RA may be assigned to do. One is to go do a fairly specific task (e.g. transcribe an interview), the other is to do something more generic and much more open-ended (e.g. do a literature review on a topic).

The tasks with my RA concern the former. I think with the latter it would be much easier to fall into the problem of taking too long, because in some ways it's a potentially never-ending task so how does the poor RA know when they have achieved the intended goal?

However, with the former, it seems that it is a fairly bounded task. Transcribe the interview and you're done. But some people do this type of work slower than others. And that's been the problem.

BTW, the RA has sent me questions on email and we do correspond in that way so I think communication channels in that sense are open.

The problem with "x done by y date" is that this RA is very restricted to certain work hours. (I guess she sees it as nothing but a 9-5 job, which is of course not ideal for an academic project.) She comes in at x time and leaves at y hour. She doesn't seem flexible at all. So assuming she's not goofing off (and I don't think she is) then I'm not sure how it would help to tell her that x has to be done by y time. But I can try.

Salmon Ella said...

Hmmmm, those details definitely help me picture the situation better, but I don't know if I can give any suggestions. Transcribing an interview would be the type of thing I'd be really slow at, because I would obsess over each and every word, and I would double- and triple-check everything for accuracy.

Maybe instead of saying you need X done by Y date, you could just mention that you'll be needing the interview soon and then ask her if she thinks she can finish by X time. That way the ball is in her court. If she says yes, then it's up to her to find a way to finish. (If it were me, I would say yes, because I wouldn't want my professor to think poorly of me. Then I would put in whatever extra hours were needed to make up for my slowness.) If she says no, then it opens the door for you to ask her why she is so slow (not that bluntly, of course).

Or... do you have money to hire another RA to help her? I don't know the physical set-up of the workplace, but maybe if she were working next to someone else doing the same thing and doing it much faster, it would help her keep pace? She might also be more open to taking tips about how to work faster from a peer rather than from an authority figure.

Good luck--it sounds like a difficult situation. I've noticed that my advisor's way of dealing with undergraduates whose work he's not satisfied with is to act really busy and avoid them until they finally give up and go away. Hopefully you can come up with a better solution. :)

Turquoise Stuff said...

Thanks for the additional comments, Salmon.

I have certainly addressed some of the specifics with her. (BTW, the audio transcription was just an example, but some of the specifics are similar enough. The point was that it's a concrete task that is fairly bounded.) She has actually been pretty good about asking whether she should obssess over details and I've always told her not to. Then again, when I have checked her work, it hasn't been great. So overall she is not only slow, but also inaccurate.

Oh well, I hired her for the summer so I guess I just have to accept this as a partial loss. I usually don't hire definitively for such long stretches of time so I can let people go. And oh well, she's doing some helpful work, but I have a feeling I'll have to check a good chunk of it.

You may be right that I should look for additional help. I definitely have to sit down and take stock of what I absolutely must have done by the end of the summer and how to achieve that.

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