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Banneker 5 Report 2: Advising

One of the refrains of the summer is that the Banneker Institute is not an REU program. It's not that REU programs are bad. It's just that we've just always had different goals in mind—and we are not seeking to reinvent the wheel. While REU programs are designed to provide undergraduate students an entrĂ©e into the world of research, we aim to prepare students of color for graduate school in myriad ways including a summer research project.

Since the beginning, the Banneker summer program has rested upon three pillars: research, classroom learning, and social justice education. This summer, we have articulated a set of high-level goals associated with these three pillars:
  1. Students will learn the process of research in astrophysics.
  2. Students will develop tools to describe the world as it is rather than as it has been narrated to them.
  3. Students will build and maintain a community that can sustain them through the trials of graduate school and their STEM careers beyond.
The first goal includes things like learning to read papers, preparing a talk to communicate findings, and learning how to read, write, debug, and maintain computer code. The second is a reminder of the connection between social justice education and the practice of physical science: both seek to describe the world as it is—no less, no more. The third goal comes with recognition that our program is ultimately insufficient, that changing the culture of academia and our society is a generational project, and that sustainable community will be an essential support to our students after the summer ends.

Running through our design of the summer is the idea of "informed consent". This idea deserves its own post, but essentially we want to give students sufficient information that they can make informed decisions about entering graduate school and choosing to take the next step towards a career in academia. To that end, we often try to structure the summer as simulation of graduate school, but a simulation with the information density and intensity turned up to the max.

Selecting an advisor is something all first-year astronomy graduate students must do, but it is something they are rarely taught. In years past, we simply assigned research advisors and projects to students before they even arrived (just as in REU programs). While this worked without a hitch most of the time, there were occasional mismatches in style or topic. But more importantly, by making the choice for them, we missed an opportunity to prepare students for their future experience of seeking out an advisor/group/project. Having practice selecting an advisor in a low(er)-stakes environment would provide our students with a major advantage in graduate school—they would be starting out their research careers with less stress around one of grad school's most stressful and defining decisions. With the aim of preparing students to navigate that decision, we decided to try something different.

Instead of being assigned an advisor on the first day, the students of B5 took two weeks to explore major subfields of astrophysical research, meet with potential research advisors, and got to know the projects those advisors were pitching. At the end of the two weeks, students provided us with a ranked listing of their top three research projects and top three advisors. Because of the emphasis we placed on the advising relationship, preferred projects and preferred advisors were not always the same. We wanted to gather as much information as possible so that we could best match students to advisors in accordance with their desires and our aim of maximizing student capacity for success (see goals above).

As for the subfields—exoplanets/solar systems, stars, galaxies, and cosmology—each topic was covered in just two days! The first was devoted to an overview lecture with plenty of time for reflection and asking questions (big ups to Jason Eastman, Sownak Bose, John Forbes and Josh Speagle for designing and teaching these lectures!). That night—in concert with a workshop on how to read a journal article, taught by Ashley Villar and Seth Gossage—students poured over an important or defining paper in the field. The second day started with questions about the paper, a more informed discussion about the subfield, and culminated with prospective research advisors pitching projects related to the topic. These mini-courses formed the backbone of the first two weeks and provided time for students to meet and talk with their potential advisors

Last week was the first week students worked on their research projects, and we are seeing the happy results of advisors chosen rather than assigned. Students appreciated the extended orientation to the Center for Astrophysics and to the field more broadly. And, especially for students coming from institutions with few astronomy research options, the process has had the benefit of exposing them to research that they might not have even known interested them.

We're also noting areas for improvement next year. Personal conversations between students and potential advisors are important for sussing the viability of a working relationship, but seeking out post-docs, professional scientists, and faculty can be intimidating for undergraduates! Next time around, we'll want to think about constructing more opportunities for informal contact beyond the two welcome mixers we had this summer. Advisor matching provided the first non-trivial test of our community agreements (see last post) because of the creeping feelings of competition students felt with each other. Old habits die hard, and zero-sum, individual success at the expense of others is a deeply ingrained feature of academia. 

Next summer, we will want to have earlier conversations explicitly naming this competition and providing more space to discuss it. We can also remind students that mentoring is a network phenomenon—just because you don't work with someone doesn't mean you can't (or shouldn't!) talk with them. It is also worth noting that this process cuts the time devoted to a specific research project from ten weeks to only eight. We are keeping close tabs on how this is playing out and will carefully consider adjustments to the length of the selection process in future summers. 

Throughout the summer, students will be learning to engage the process of research with their advisors: the daily working-through of ideas, the climbing-over of coding woes, and building up tolerance for being "stuck," with an eye toward future breakthroughs. Our hope is that these advising relationships will be places our students can grow themselves and their science!

Written by John Johnson and Vale Cofer-Shabica


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