I find that the following seem to help:
- 1. Making them talk. Call it accountability, or call it peer pressure, but nothing motivates people like having to just get up and speak for two minutes at every week's group meeting, to say what you accomplished this week and what you're going to work on next week. I start the discussion part of every meeting (before or after the seminar) with a "go-round", religiously.
- 2. Letting people know that you're there for them. It helps that I sleep less than most of my group members, so that when (say) masaga IMs me at 0500, I can often reply right away.
- 3. Follow-through on "getting the ball rolling". If I ask person A to e-mail collaborator B (say, a recently-graduated Ph.D. student of some colleague C at Illinois, CMU, etc.), they will do so with reluctance. But if I then call B, or schedule a meeting among A, myself, and B (plus C if possible) when we are both going to be in town or meeting up with B at a conference, then A gets more interested. Sometimes this is due to the fact that people like attention and dislike feeling ignored, and sometimes it's due to the fear of looking bad in front of B and C.
- 4. Making sure they come in and see me. This helps, both as a variant of #1 (holding them accountable) and to make sure people speak up and let me know what they are working on, or stuck on. Sometimes I can resolve impasses. This works more often for basic research and conceptual mental blocks, or for people needing a pointer to a tutorial, than for someone trying to correct errors in a program or to solve a very specific low-level problem, but even then, it helps to talk it over. For every type of problem, there's been at least one case where I've been able to lend some guidance.
- 5. Rewarding them well. I pay undergrads a pittance (or "tippance" as yodge would say), but grad research assistants are decently paid, when they are actually employed on a grant. The main reward I'm able to offer, though, is the chance to get co-authorship (or, in the case of original work, first authorship) on papers.
Any other ideas?
A note on the title of this post: It comes from this, which many of you may recognize, and the use of motivator in television broadcasts as a minced oath, or euphemism, for the similar-sounding expletive in that clip.