If you’re anything like me, you can credit much of your graduate school success to the opportunities you were given as an undergraduate. While my professors and classes were certainly influential, my experience conducting undergraduate research was transformative. Through my relationship with my advisor and the work we did together, I began to see myself as a scientist for the first time in my life. Now, as a mentor of undergraduates myself, I have the privilege to provide this same transformative experience to the students I work with on a daily basis.
It is an enormous responsibility to work with undergraduate researchers and one that should not be taken lightly. Unfortunately, despite the dependence of academia on mentorship, it is often undervalued and unappreciated, and graduate programs rarely require any formalized training to enhance mentorship. While I highly suggest that all graduate students enroll in mentorship training, these three tips can help you and your undergraduate researchers get the most out of your relationship together.
- Involve undergraduates in all parts of the scientific process
If there is one thing you get from reading this article, I hope it is this: undergraduate researchers do not exist to wash your glassware. This doesn’t mean undergraduates should be able to skate through lab without contributing to the overall lab maintenance; however, the responsibilities of an undergraduate researcher should never be limited to taking out the trash, making agar, and all the other tiresome tasks that graduate students avoid as much as possible. When you value your undergrads as a part
of your team, you both benefit: they may kindle a life-long passion for research and you will benefit from their curiosity and fresh perspective. This means involving undergraduate researchers in all parts of the scientific process, from literature review, experimental design, figure generation, and beyond (and while you are at it, don’t forget to include these researchers as coauthors!). Unlike most graduate students, undergraduate researchers haven’t had countless experiments fail and don’t choose techniques or protocols because “that’s the way it’s been done.” Your undergraduates have fresh eyes and if you bring them to the table as a colleague, you will get double the return on investment for the time you spend working together. By giving your mentees legitimate responsibilities, including their own independent work, you will inevitably push your own work forward… all for the low, low price of washing your own beakers every once in a while.
- Tailor your mentoring style to the student
If you think about the people you work alongside every day, do you think you could list more ways that you are similar or more ways that you are different? Chances are it’s the latter, which should tell you automatically that your undergraduate mentees will have a wide range of personalities and workplace habits. From the method through which you communicate to the amount of instruction given for tasks in the laboratory, students will have different needs requiring you to rise to the occasion and personalize your mentorship for each student. Although this is definitively more work, the payout is well worth it; when your undergraduates feel that their needs are being met, they will likely be more effective and efficient researchers. More important, as leaders in the lab, graduate students should strive for the highest amount of equity and inclusion as possible, something that can never be accomplished with a “one size fits all” approach. To be a successful mentor, you will have to put in the work to improve your cultural competence, an essential skill that requires diligent critical introspection to improve. Figuring out how you can maintain a successful mentee-mentor relationship will be easier if you keep open, two-way communication and regularly invite feedback on how you can improve as a mentor.
- Be their advocate for opportunities
Being a mentor is a responsibility that extends far past the confines of your laboratory. It is your responsibility to seek out and introduce your mentees to new opportunities, whether it be scientific conferences they can attend, fellowships they can apply for, or awards for which you can nominate them. If there are opportunities for undergraduate researchers to conduct paid summer research either in your lab or elsewhere, you should explain how they can get these positions as well as the benefits of participating, remembering that your mentee will make their own decisions that may or may not align with your advice. Additionally, you should talk to your undergraduate researchers openly about being a graduate student and the path you took to get where you are. It is not a well-known fact that STEM Ph.D. programs are often fully funded, and your students may not believe that a doctorate is an option for them. This is particularly needed for students from underrepresented minority populations, who data have shown to disproportionally enroll in master’s programs before their doctoral work (while the reason is not certain, it is hypothesized that this occurs in part due to not knowing the transition from bachelors to doctoral programs is possible for them). Most important, share both your academic successes and disappointments; show your undergraduate researchers that graduate students are never perfect and that undergraduates should not be intimidated if they are interested in pursuing a doctoral degree themselves. You can make a difference in a student’s trajectory if you take the time to advocate on their behalf and be the mentor you wish you could have.
These tips are meant to be a starting point for graduate students to consider in their mentee-mentorship relationships. I highly recommend professional mentorship training for anyone who has or will have a supervisory role. These resources, while far from exhaustive, can help improve your mentorship abilities.
Peer edited by Allison Lacko