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Working with Students | Thoughts and Learnings

Image courtesy: www.picjumbo.com
Have you ever had an experience working with students? How was it for you? Was it interesting sharing knowledge and your expertise with them? Did you in turn learn something from them? Responses to these questions would really interest me. I have had a recent experience working with students and it would be an understatement to say that it was exasperating. I took on these students considering they were being trained in skills I did not have and required for a work project. However, I was thrown in the deep end and realized very quickly how the students lacked the skills I was looking for and hence could not deliver the kind of quality I was expecting and was important for me to deliver. Hence I had to work doubly hard to get this project completed, relying on myself to work on elements of the project I had never tried my hand at before. The students showed lack of responsibility, lack of clarity and structure, lack of interest and drive and a disrespect of adhering to deadlines. Apart from the fact that they could not end up delivering what was communicated to them and expected by us, they also did not extend the courtesy of keeping me posted on the status of the project. They clearly wasted my time and the final product did not reflect the standards we set before starting off, thereby making my execution of the said project flawed. Here are some of my thoughts and learnings from my experience that you can consider should you enlist the services of students. 
  • Always put up your best professional front with them. Do not show your personal and lighter front to them in your effort to make them feel comfortable. If you talk to a college student by being swayed in the moment of reminiscing about your college days, your professional identity is somewhere missed out on by the students. Don't cross the boundary and step into the 'friendly' or 'informal' zone. Then, you will not be taken seriously. 
  • Be serious and communicate the seriousness of the work you want them to take on and the stakes. The stakes - outlining these to them vividly is crucial. They should know why they have been hired and what their work will result in or how it matters; who this work will be reported out to and what consequences it will bear. Understand that they have never worked in a professional environment before and hence it becomes paramount to share that in the real world, there are real stakes. 
  • Make it clear to them that this is a brilliant opportunity for them to apply what they have learnt and showcase their talent. A good opportunity to start building a strong foundation of work before having entered into the professional world. A chance for them to stand out from their peers. An occasion for them to network.
  • Reinforce the importance of sticking to deadlines. Should they miss a first deadline and you let that pass, you have then set out the pattern for the rest of the project. Give them a hard time about missing deadlines. Make it clear that that's not okay and further delays will not be tolerated.
  • Brief them well. Brief them very, very well. Be patient at this stage. They should fully have comprehended your vision of the project they are going to undertake. Repeat if they do not understand or even seem perplexed. Encourage them to ask questions or share doubts or any apprehensions. 
  • Follow up. This is an unfortunate and less pleasurable but an important yet understated aspect of anyone's job. Be on your toes, and make sure the students are on theirs. Check up on them regularly and ask them how the project is progressing and if there is any assistance they require from your end. You need to be there at all times as their support system and guiding force. While you have got them on board for skills that you do not have, nevertheless, they will look at you for guidance, reassurance and support. 
  • Communicate regularly Avoid having gaps in communicating with students. Having not touched base with them regularly might make them think you have forgotten about your project or that might imply that this project is not a priority for you. Big mistake and one that you want to avoid. 
  • Whether you need to necessarily pay them or not is something that is still debatable in my mind. If they do an outstanding job, they deserve a remuneration. If the final job did not turn out as desired, worse still if you were measurably inconvenienced by the students owing to their lack of respect and sincerity towards the project, in that case, do not pay them. They do not deserve it. Like I said before, there are real stakes in the real world, and the earlier they are made to realize this, the better. 
  • Last but not the least, your project reflects your work to your team. Whose help you seek to get the work done is not anyone else's business. People will see the final project and not the stresses and effort that you have put in along with the students to get this project completed - hence the final work and its quality is highly important for you, for your team, for your record, and even for the students. 
When I shared my dissatisfaction working with students with a fellow colleague, he remarked 'Well what do you expect? They are students after all. They're immature and will only learn once they start working.' I did not take well to that remark and agreed to disagree. What matters sometimes more than skill is the willingness to work hard, sincerity and the right attitude. These are three characteristics that should not be restricted to working professionals but any honest individual who wants to learn and grow in life (work or personal). If these basic triggers in a person are missing, I would worry for them.

This is not to by all means say that all students are lax. I wouldn't want one bad apple to spoil the bunch. I'm sure there are scores of them out there very keen to prove themselves and work hard. I just haven't come across them yet. My message to all the young boys and girls is pull up those socks! Meanwhile if you have had any such experiences I would love to hear about them. 

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