The students who you bring into your research are future colleagues. Start them out on the best path possible. That means creating the right environment, instilling confidence, and encouraging exploration. Use this page if you would like to learn more about how to achieve this with your mentees.
Understanding is the most valuable piece for new undergraduate researchers. To be effective members of a group, students need to know what the research goal is and what is expected of them. Begin your collaboration by clearly answering these questions for your student:
- What is the broad goal (question) of the research group?
- What is my role? How does it fit with the broader goal?
- How can I expect my role to change or grow as I learn more?
- What do I do on a day-to-day basis?
- Who do I report to if I need something to do, can't make it to work, etc.?
- Who can I ask questions to?
- What are the time expectations? What if I can't come in or am late?
- Do we meet on a regular basis?
- How do I record my work?
- How am I expected to communicate with the group or my supervisor?
- Am I expected to present my work?
Remember that your student is new to being a professional. Things that seem to be common sense to an experienced researcher may not occur to your student. Addressing expectations early and often keeps you and your student on the same page, preventing problems down the road.
OUR recommends outlining expectations for undergraduates in writing. Mentorship agreements are popular ways to do this.
Mentorship agreements are forms meant to keep mentors and mentees on the same page. They can be revisited and updated routinely as mentees become more knowledgeable, independent, and confident.
There are many examples of agreements online, both simple and extremely complex. Pacts do not need to be complex to be effective. The Office of Undergraduate Research asks all of our Research Fellows to fill out this very simple Mentorship Agreement Form. It asks each party to write three goals for the semester. CIMER's Mentor-Mentee Agreement is a bit more complex and broader in scope.
Large research groups may have manuals containing all of the information that members need to know, such as a statement of purpose, code of conduct, training courses, roles and expectations, templates and software information, and emergency procedures. If your large research group does not have a manual, consider creating one for onboarding new members.
Start slow. Your new undergraduate RA likely has no experience. Many undergrads begin their research time by performing simple tasks and shadowing. Group meetings, reading simple background papers, "doing dishes", attending presentations, and observing others are all great ways to get started.
Required training. Depending on your research area, the university may require certifications or training. If you are unsure what training your undergraduate needs, please visit Environmental Health and Safety's website or the Human Subjects Office CITI Training website.
Set the Environment. Make your new student comfortable by introducing them to everyone in your group, even collaborators. Take the time to welcome them in and let them get to know their new colleagues. Confidence within the group leads to greater accountability, shared sense of purpose, and comfort asking questions.
Undergraduates don't always foresee the personal and professional benefits of research participation. Mentors may need to guide students to this end. Here are a few ways to do this:
Encourage independence. Tell a student when they do something right. Show them how to correct errors when they do something wrong. Tell them stories of errors you have made. This builds confidence and trust, and students will be more likely to seek independence and responsibility (potentially their own project!).
Encourage presenting. Get students used to presenting. Start with lab meetings. Then move to OUR's undergraduate research festivals. Ideally, students will present at a local, regional, or national conference before graduation. Check OUR Events for more opportunities.
Encourage career exploration. Many students learn about new career paths through research. Maybe they will go on to a PhD and continue research. Maybe they will go in a different direction entirely. Giving students opportunities to talk to others in their field and with YOU about potential careers will help them decide what to do after graduation and beyond.
Encourage conferences. Conferences of any type are impactful experiences for undergraduates, even if they don't know these are options. Take your student with you to conferences where they can network with other researchers, graduate students, and professionals. Presentation at a conference is a bonus!
Encourage award applications. Imposter syndrome is real. Encourage your student to apply for awards, even when they believe they are not qualified. Undergraduates frequently underestimate themselves. Award applications, and learning how to talk about their accomplishments, help them realize just how amazing they are.
Encourage involvement. Let undergraduates see every moving part of the work. Grant applications, writing (and re-writing) papers, developing experiments, testing new materials, looking up and trying out new methods. Keep students' minds actively engaged by letting them in on these processes.
Five effective mentoring strategies from the Council on Undergraduate Research are:
- Make yourself available
- Foster community
- Be attentive
- Be understanding
- Encourage participation in the broader research community
Your ability to use these strategies will vary depending on things like the size of your group, oversight of your team, ability of your student, and your own personal style of mentorship. Think back to your own experience as an undergraduate researcher—remember how uncertain you felt initially, afraid to ask questions and certain that everyone knew more. Use that knowledge and experience to foster your mentee’s development.
Educating new researchers
Preparing your students to be good researchers is about education. While it is a very different style of education than classroom teaching, thinking through what you want your students to learn and creating good learning opportunities makes the experience more beneficial to you and your students. A classic framework for structuring an educational experience is the Community of Inquiry.