Tag Archives: Self Determination Theory

Deciding if you are a Good Fit for Research

If you’re an undergrad interested in vet school, or a vet student interested in post-graduate education, research may be an important part of your educational experience.  Sadly, I would say about 50% of students with whom I talk indicate they had a terrible experience with research. Not just a not-positive experience, an actively bad experience.  How did this happen? I believe a large chunk of responsibility rests on the mentors, who didn’t create clear expectations, or who were a bad fit for the student. But it is also because these students didn’t figure out if they were a good fit for research, or didn’t know how to find out if they are a good fit.

The first step is to understand what research will do for you as an undergrad or as a vet student.  In the ideal situation, you discover that it is fun and may form a part of your future career. You may also bolster your application by demonstrating your grit, ability to work with others, and willingness to develop a relationship with a faculty member.  Once you understand the WHY to do research, you can focus on how to get a good fit.

The most important determinant is the faculty mentor.  The type of project and other people involved factor in, but are distant seconds in deciding if research will be a good fit for you.  It’s not about research at all; it’s about a human connection. I believe the two most important variables are communication style and level of direction.

Communication style.  Do you understand what this person says and do you like how they communicate?  If they insist on email, does that work for you, or is anything other than text messaging difficult for you?  Do they make you feel comfortable when you meet or do you leave confused, frustrated, or weirded-out? Ideally, you will find a faculty member with whom you communicate well.

Level of direction.  How much supervision do you need or want?  Do you want to be micromanaged or given vague directions and left alone?  Try to establish this before deciding to work with a faculty member. Of course, you have to know yourself and be honest with yourself first.  One of my greatest frustrations is when I tell students how I work (I give them some direction and then answer questions as they come up and expect them to be self-motivated), but then they turn out to not be self-motivated and require me to crack the whip to get things done.  I don’t like being a whip-cracker. Some faculty members do, and that’s fine. There’s not a right way to do things, just good and bad fits.

Once you have decided you will get along with the faculty member, then you can consider the project.  If the project isn’t interesting to you, will you be able to stick with it and demonstrate your enthusiasm and get a good letter of recommendation?  Is the project relevant to your future professional path? This doesn’t mean you can’t do something fun in social sciences (and I would argue this may be a better research skill to acquire than pipetting things in a lab), but you should be honest with yourself and your motivations for doing research.

Finally, with whom will you be working?  You want to be working primarily with the faculty member.  If you will be dumped off onto a post-doc or a grad student, that is less than ideal and may not suit your needs.  Will there be other students in the research group and do you get to work with them? Collaborating with peers can be fun and a way to improve your internal motivation.  If you’d rather work by yourself, know that and identify projects and research groups where that is the case.

Most people think they either “like research” or “don’t like research.”  I would argue that research work can be just like any other work- extremely fun and engaging or horribly tedious and soul-crushing.  I believe this is not due to the nature of the work itself, but rather the three elements of internal motivation: do you have autonomy, are you getting an interesting skill, and how does it affect your relationship with others?

Making sure you enjoy working with the faculty member (autonomy, relationships), the project (skill acquisition), and co-researchers (relationships) is the best way to decide if doing research will be a good fit for you.  What concerns do you have about doing research as a student?

How to be Successful: Self-Reflection and Self-Honesty

One of my friends has told me she is interested in pursuing a residency because she wants to be respected by the community and be a Person of Importance.  In our study of senior students interested in internships, many of them expressed an interest in being The Expert. I applaud both of these sentiments because they come from a place of self-reflection and self-honesty.  They may not be motivations on par with “I want to help sick animals” or “I want to train better vets”, but that’s OK, because they are genuine. They are also not contradictory of such noble motivations; you can help sick animals by being a respected and important surgeon.  Having thoughtful self-reflection and being honest with yourself is essential to being a successful professional.

My friend who wants to be a specialist because of the social capital can make better decisions because of that knowledge.  Maybe she can get the same acknowledgement from being important in organized veterinary medicine (like sitting on the state board or being an AVMA delegate).  Maybe she can get it from doing a PhD in physiology and being a basic scientist. Or maybe she realizes that what she actually wants is the regard from pet owners and veterinary academics, which will funnel her more towards the path to a residency.  In any event, knowing exactly what is motivating her will make her career choices and decisions dramatically simpler.

Those students who acknowledge they want to be considered The Expert can use that self-knowledge in powerful ways.  Hopefully, they will realize that most Experts don’t put a big flashing sign saying “EXPERT” above their head; this knowledge will allow the students to Aim for Zero.  If they don’t get a residency, they may decide to find an area of clinical focus and drill down on that- maybe being the ultrasound ‘expert’ in their clinic. This insight will help them find professional fulfillment regardless of their career path.

And that’s the real key: what would you be happy doing and why?  I see countless people saying, “I HAVE to be a vet! It’s all I’ve ever wanted!” or “I HAVE to be a surgeon!  It’s the only thing I can imagine doing!” But… is it really? Why? “I want to help animals.” You can do that VERY effectively as a vet tech, wildlife biologist, or working in animal control for the county.  “I want to make lots of money.” Sure, then you should be an entrepreneur.  “I want to talk to clients all day.”  OK, a receptionist does that and is a key part of the veterinary team.

“I want the regard of my parents, who both have graduate degrees and expect me to excel in academics.”  Ah ha, good, now we’re getting somewhere. “I am scared of trying to make my way in the real world and need more time in school to shelter me and discover who I am.”  Excellent, excellent. “I want people to like me because my mother never hugged me.” Yes, yes! Once we get to this level of self-reflection and self-honesty, we can actually make some helpful, meaningful decisions about our life. Try not to be judgmental of yourself or fear others’ judgment of these motivations. You have a right to decide what to do with your own life; full honesty will help you get there.

I want you to be reflective and honest because I want you to make the best career decisions you can.  And you can only make the best decisions if you are able to decide exactly what you want and, importantly, WHY you want it.  You need to go deeper than superficial motivations. What VALUES of yours does this career path satisfy?

The easiest way to get to this is called a ‘laddering technique’.  We used it in the study cited above and it can work for you. Just keep asking “why?” until you get to a core, bedrock value which cannot be reduced.  I personally adhere to the Self-Determination Theory of core values, but you can adhere to other theories and get the same outcome. The point is that you need to know what MOVES you from a fundamental core belief level.

For myself, I wanted intense intellectual challenge, because that is a source of enjoyment for me, a decent salary, because financial insecurity was a source of anxiety growing up, a flexible schedule, because I am an iconoclast and don’t like being told what to do, and the opportunity to be in some clear leadership role, because I enjoy the regard of those whom I am in charge of as long as I do a good job.  This led me on the path to academia, but there are MANY MANY other people in academia with very very different motivations. I don’t care what motivates you, but you need to know the core values which motivate you.