As a doctoral researcher of the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin, I enjoy a lot of freedom to structure my research as I want to – especially, since we are usually not part of giving lectures or tutorials like the doctoral researchers at universities. By partaking in the summer student program, I learned though that teaching someone else can teach you a lot yourself.
Taking the decision
Only a few months after having started my doctoral research, we had a first summer student in our workgroup. At that time, I was very impressed by the sheer amount of work that this summer student could provide and thus saw a clear benefit from the program for my own project. Also, it was exciting to meet someone from abroad and getting to know each other. Hence, I decided on applying for the next program myself.
With this decision, however, came also the duty of planning a work program that was doable for a student in his/her 5th to 6th semester. So I sat down, and revisited how far I was with my own research and what I wanted to still achieve within my thesis; which is something that is advised to every doctoral researcher over and over, anyway. However, I then had to decide what portion of my PhD project I could distribute – and whether it was research that would yield meaningful results within the two months of the summer student program.
Of course, I also wanted to plan out the project as „robust“ as possible – such that nothing could go wrong for the student. Thinking about that now, despite being a bit tedious, the plan-making in itself was already an exciting experience, since I was practically going to have a Mini-workgroup of my own for a short period. I also felt a huge responsibility – since this person would more or less fully trust a plan that I „just made up“.
Kindling the fire of interest
While preparing the topic, I sometimes wondered about what I would do, in case the summer student did not want to work on the proposed topic. At this thought, I recalled a famous quote that I learned in a rhethoric course once:
„You cannot kindle a fire in any other heart until it is burning in your own.“ (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Since I had been preparing the whole workplan for my summer student for weeks already, I was pretty excited myself to see what we could achieve within the project. So, when she finally arrived I took most my own worktime during the first week for explaining the first tasks personally – since I knew that the more she understood what we were trying to do, the more self-governed she could work and learn. Also I remembered from my own internships that I always felt rewarded, once I was able to do a difficult task completely on my own.
Tending the spark
Then, each time she finished some major step of the project, we would discuss her findings together. Sometimes, when we would hit questionable results, I had to rethink our strategy a little – like I naturally do for my own work as well. However, since it was not me personally who obtained the strange results I actually felt even worse than if I had produced them myself. In the end, she was of course following my lead and could not as critically question each of the tasks like I could have done. So I also learned to plan every next step with even more caution before passing it on to her.
Like this, every time we would start a new type of task, we would then sit down and run quickly through the theory together – also trying to establish links between the tasks, like „why we would need the prior step to do the next“ and so on. After we had finally covered every building block of the project, I then tried to rather provide guidance and counsel than keeping the strict workflow, since I knew from my own experience that passing on a sense of self-responsibility and trust was the last ingredient for conveying a „burning interest“. I was not expecting though, that once lit, this excitement could also develop a momentum of its own.
Handing on the torch
At the end of the program, the students were to present their results to the other participants. In a small competition of self-written abstracts, three of the 21 participants could then win the right to give a ten minute oral presentation on their topic at the last day. And since my student was starting to „burn for her topic“, she wanted to also show the others what she had achieved and to convey the spark of interest even further.
So she spent a lot of time on refining her abstract completely self-governed such that she could win the interest of the others. From time to time, she wanted me to give her abstract a look, but her eagerness for this self-chosen project of her own had started all by itself. Seeing the determination in someone, that I had only known for a couple of weeks for a project that I had designed was an incredible experience that also motivated me for my own work. When she and three of the other summer students finally held their presentations, I was very proud and thankful for her effort.
In conclusion, I was very happy to have been a part of the summer student program, since it was a first possibility for me to learn how to plan out a project, how to motivate others for my own passion and to lead a mini-workgroup for a short time. Although I spent quite some time on this project, we could obtain some nice results together and it was a very rewarding experience to see someone catching fire for my field of interest.
Should you now also have „caught fire“ for the next summer student program, you will be able to find information on the program on the HZB homepage, or you may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are now curious to read about Sara’s project, you’ll find her own short description here: Band gap engineering: how theoretical chemistry can lead to the perfect photocatalyst