Considerations for Mentoring an Undergraduate

November 7, 2017

By Erin Zimmerman, PhD

One of the best ways to both give of your time and improve your teaching skills as a graduate student, post-doc, or early-career researcher is to mentor an undergraduate in the lab. With proper planning, communication, and reasonable expectations, it can be a mutually beneficial experience for both mentor and mentee. Without sufficient planning and structure, partnerships run the risk of being a frustration or disappointment to one or both parties and may even change a person's feelings about continuing in science. To ensure the experience is positive for both sides, here are a few points to think over as you plan for your undergraduate's time in the lab as a summer intern, year-round volunteer/employee, or thesis student.

Have a plan

The most important part of beginning a collaboration with an undergraduate is having a clear plan. Projects should be realizable within the specified timeframe and, whether they produce the expected results or not, should generate data that the student is able to present and discuss. Ideally, for longer term mentorships, projects should even be publishable or integrated into the lab's research in such a way that the student gains a co-authorship. Experiments centred around a discrete research question will help the student to understand the "why" behind the project, rather than feeling as though they are simply following instructions.

Following the discussion of this plan with the student, a useful exercise can be to have the student write a project summary in their own words along with a short literature review. This can help to root out any misunderstandings the student may have about the work or its background that may not have been immediately obvious. The literature review can also help you to suggest next steps for the direction their reading should take.

Gauge progress

Though not every project lends itself to this, if possible, set up the student's project with a series of milestones that will allow you to gauge whether sufficient progress is being made. In some cases, these could be weekly or monthly goals, in others, they could correspond to the completion of stages of the project, such as experiments being set up, data collection and analysis, and writing.

If things aren't progressing, it's time to sit down together and figure out why. The student may be struggling to balance the project against the demands of their coursework or may be stuck on a particular experiment and reluctant to ask for help. Written or oral progress reports delivered at lab meetings are a great way to build accountability into an undergraduate project.

Manage expectations

Working on a research project, and in a lab, will very likely be a new experience for your mentee, who may not have even held a job before. As such, it's key that an open discussion of what is expected of both parties take place. The student should understand the work hours and rate of progress that are expected of them and how to conduct themselves responsibly in the lab. He or she should know whom to ask for help and when it’s appropriate to come and discuss issues with you directly. 

As a mentor, don't expect overly long working hours from your student unless absolutely necessary for a given experiment; undergraduates have demanding class schedules that make it hard to give of their time in this way. Be sensitive too, to busy exam periods and holidays when students will need time to study and recharge. Finally, remember that as an undergraduate, independence in the lab is not a reasonable expectation from this student. Instead, try to build confidence and competence surrounding a limited number of skills and protocols and a general understanding of how research works. 

Give feedback

Those starting out in research may feel very unsure of themselves and will benefit from regular feedback and, when possible, praise for their successes. Students who don't receive this will sometimes languish in their uncertainty and lose interest in their project over time, feeling that they must not be any good at what they're doing. Take the time to hold regular one-on-one meetings with your undergraduate and, if feasible, have them attend lab meetings. This can be a great way to both help them feel like a part of the lab and to introduce them to what will be expected of them if they continue into graduate school. What's more, senior members of the lab will become familiar with the undergraduate's project and may be more able to lend a helping hand or give useful suggestions if the project hits a snag.

Arrange for a good lab education

Depending on your branch of science, there's a good chance lab work is at the core of what you do. It is crucial that a new student not be left to figure things out for themselves in this space. Beyond an initial orientation, many undergraduates are instructed to simply ask another, more senior, student who happens to be around for help whenever needed. This haphazard approach often doesn't work well, because the other students are busy and don't feel personally responsible for their new colleague. The undergraduate may not get the help they need or, worse, may only get a partial explanation of a procedure. This could result in needless failure due to a misunderstanding of the protocol, thereby wasting time and expensive reagents. 

Though having an experiment fail is very much a part of scientific research, failing due to a lack of support and instruction can be a very demoralizing experience. If you're unable to take the time to personally teach new protocols to your mentee, assign a specific person within the lab to do so, and ask that it be done at pre-arranged times, rather than while the assigned instructor is trying to complete his or her own work. 

A mentee's education should always, of course, include thorough safety training. Most institutions now require even short-term lab workers to take official health and safety training, but every lab has additional hazards that may not be covered by these courses, especially if your research encompasses work in the field. You should personally take the time to go over with your student any safety procedures not included in traditional training modules. 

Make use of existing talents

A great way to both motivate your student and get the most out of your time together is to find out what interests or talents he or she has and would enjoy using. Do they love playing around in Adobe Illustrator? Teaching them how to create beautiful figures and putting them to work with some of your data will pay off for both of you. Do they enjoy really finicky, fine-scale work? Set them up in front of a microscope and let them do those dissections no one else can stand to do. The student will be able to expand on an existing talent and you'll be making the most of your new lab member.

Though a certain amount of planning and preparation is required, as well as keeping up ongoing communications, taking the time to mentor an undergraduate can lead to an enjoyable and enriching collaboration for both parties. Mentors will gain teaching experience and see progress on aspects of their research they may not have had time to delve into themselves, while mentees will have a valuable learning experience and perhaps be set on the road to pursuing graduate studies in the sciences.

What are your best tips for successfully mentoring undergraduates? Or, if you're an undergraduate, how did your mentor set you up for success? Tell us on Twitter or in the comments.

Erin Zimmerman (@DoctorZedd) is a plant biologist turned science writer and illustrator. She holds a BSc in plant biology and physics from the University of Guelph and an MSc and PhD in fungal genetics and molecular systematics, respectively, from the Université de Montréal. She blogs about evolution at Questionable Evolution. Find more of her writing at her website.

Filed Under: Science Careers Erin Zimmerman

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