Successful Mentoring

Undergraduate students bring eagerness and ideas to the research process and will be important future contributors to your field. Research reveals (Ishiyama, 2001) students value the mentorship of their research supervisor more than the research project. Therefore, research mentors should be aware of the conversations, training, and guidance they are providing throughout an experience.

Clearly articulated and agreed-upon expectations and roles are crucial for a successful research mentorship. Ensure when starting a new project with an undergraduate researcher, to ensure the project is realistic, challenging, and feasible. Here are suggestions of discussions to have at the beginning with the student:

  • What is the weekly schedule and the hours they will work? Hold the student accountable to a regular, weekly schedule until more freedom is appropriate.
  • What are your expectations of the experience, including readings?
  • How do you want this student to communicate with you? Who do they go to when you are gone?
  • What is the project timeline and description? What is their responsibility?
  • When are regular meetings time for the two of you or with your research team?
  • Is IRB approval required? If so, what will the student researcher prepare? 

It is important to establish clear expectations at the beginning and discuss professional research methodology throughout the experience. With support and training, undergraduate students can contribute in many ways, including literature reviews, data analyses, participant recruitments, interviews, and laboratory assistance.

Graduate Students & Postdocs

Graduate students and postdocs are critical to undergraduate researcher mentoring at Purdue. You might help students learn about research through teaching courses, consulting during office hours, assisting in labs, or finding a way to engage them in your research.

Some graduate students and postdocs want to “pay it forward” because of those who helped them in your path as undergraduate researchers. As teaching assistants or instructors, graduate students and postdocs may recognize certain skills undergraduate students need before they continue to graduate school (“I wish I knew…”) and provide timely advice. Grad students and postdocs benefit from supervisory roles in a research program with undergraduate students when applying for teaching and research positions where they will supervise others. Finally, undergraduate students can help complete portions of a project that may be important but time-consuming.

Items to consider when mentoring an undergraduate researcher include:

  • What is the weekly schedule and the hours they will work? Hold the student accountable to a regular, weekly schedule until more freedom is appropriate.
  • What are your expectations of the experience, including readings?
  • How do you want this student to communicate with you? Who do they go to when you are gone?
  • What is the project timeline and description? What is their responsibility?
  • When are regular meetings time for the two of you or with your research team?
  • Is IRB approval required? If so, what will the student researcher prepare?
  • How will the experience be evaluated for success?
  • What safety guidelines are to be reviewed before the undergraduate researcher begins?

If you are passionate about mentoring and including undergraduate students in your research program, you can post your position on the OURConnect site and work with the Office of Undergraduate Research to learn about best practices. You can also read about best practices of mentoring undergraduate researchers by reviewing the handbook Entering Mentoring, published by HHMI.

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