The Mentoring Role in Undergraduate Research Projects

This post is excerpted from a 1996 CUR Research Quarterly article written by Dr. Mitch Malachowski. Mitch is a longtime CUR member, councilor and past-president, and this article is a must read for everyone mentoring undergraduate research.

You can find it in its entirety HERE: RoleOfMentorArticle


 

The importance of mentoring

The most comprehensive of  a research advisors’s tasks is to act as a mentor,  and this is the role which will potentially have the longest lasting impact.

Trotter Pam with students 2016There are a variety of roles that a research director fulfills in order to run a successful research program. These include acting as a co-worker, manager, supervisor, role model and mentor .There are major differences among these roles, but a successful program will probably include all of the them. The most comprehensive of a  research advisors’s tasks is to act as a mentor,  and this is the role which will potentially have the longest lasting impact. What exactly, then, does it mean to be a mentor? Mentoring involves a one-to-one relationship in which the mentor encourages and guides the students’s personal growth and academic development, while providing support and assistance as the student works through the challenges of undergraduate life. Mentoring has been with us for centuries. The very term mentor is derived from The Odyssey in which Homer describes Ulysses’ choosing of his trusted friend, Mentor, to look after his son, Telemachyus, as Ulysses begins his ten-year journey. Since Mentor gave Telemachus counsel and cared for and protected him, these attributes have become central to our modern interpretations of the term.

20150122_Phillips_124Alexander Astin (1993), at UCLA, has conducted extensive longitudinal studies of students and student learning, and has shown the the two most important factors in students development, satisfactions and cognitive development are the students’ peer groups and the quality and quantity or their interactions with faculty outside the classroom. It is clear from his work that the characteristics and behaviors of the faculty have widespread and important implications for student development.

There is no activity that I am aware of that places students and faculty together in a more optimal situation to foster this type of development than a research project with a heavy mentoring component.

The extent to which the faculty at a given university are “Student-Oriented” is positively correlated with almost all measures of affective and cognitive development and outcomes (e.g. retention, enrollment, is graduate or professional schools, test scores, critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, leadership, social activism, development of a philosophy of life). There is no activity that I am aware of that places students and faculty together in a more optimal situation to foster this type of development than a research project with a heavy mentoring component.

Attributes of Mentors

What makes a faculty advisor a good mentor, and how are mentors perceived by students?

I believe that, just as the content of projects should be geared to individual students, the relationship between the professor and the student should be tailored to individuals However, even though each project has a like of its own, there are certain traits and approaches that are common to any high quality mentoring experience. What makes a faculty advisor a good mentor, and how are mentors perceived by students?

…the most important attributes of a good mentor are interest and support, positive personality characteristics (e.g. humor, honesty, dedication, empathy, compassion, patience, objectivity, flexibility), knowledge, and competence.

Cronan-Hillix et al.’s study (1986) of the effects of mentoring on a group of psychology graduate students showed that the most important attributes of a good mentor are interest and support, positive personality characteristics (e.g. humor, honesty, dedication, empathy, compassion, patience, objectivity, flexibility), knowledge, and competence. Good mentors are sharing, giving and non exploitative; they also have positive attitudes toward students. Negative characteristics included such things as rigidity, egocentricity, disorganization, overextendedness, uninterested/unsupportive or exploitative attitudes towards students and inaccessibility Displaying and of the positive attributes, and running a research program can be challenges, but the benefits are be enormous when the nature of the mentor fulfills the expectations of  mentees.

Stages of Mentoring

Stage 1 – Intiation

“…at this stage, the mentoring tasks may include building trust, expressing commitment and setting limits and expectations for the mentee.”

KeriColabroy-0258Mentoring can be viewed wither from the nature of the relationship between the mentor and the mentee , or from the outcomes that one hopes will result from the relationship. Just as it is possible to delineate some of the traits common to successful mentoring, it is also possible to outline that various stages that mentoring relationship typically undergo. During the first stage, the initiation stage, the relationship is driven primarily be the mentor For instance, research advisors my  seek out students for involvement in their projects, provide guidance in the early stages of project planning and teach students how to use equipment and instrumentation. The mentor may also give presentations to the students detailing the background for the work the goals of the project. At this stage in the relationship, the advisor may be seen as a role model more than as a mentor. Also at this stage, the mentoring tasks may include building trust, expressing commitment and setting limits and expectations for the mentee.

Stage 2 – Cultivation

Once the relationship is established, the second stage, or cultivation stage, involves greater and more equal interaction between the mentor and the mentee with information exchanged fore freely. There is also more explicit setting of goals at this point, Since the mentor and mentee share a number of experiences, more interpersonal communication and empathy are exhibited during this stage. Advice is offered, and the mentee is encouraged to think of the project as his or her own. The students many also present work orally to others in the group, or to the mentor, and write periodic progress reports on the research project.

Stage 3 – Transformation

In the next stage, the transformation stage, the mentee begins to develops greater LaurenWarningRyanFerrie-5294(1)autonomy and requires less guidance. By this time, decision-making and goal setting skills have developed to the point where the mentor may be acting primarily as a supervisor for the project by giving feedback to the student. The student may suggest changes in existing protocols, propose additional experiment to be done, or interpret results and data for him or herself.

…the student has now become a collaborator on the project.

In these respects, the student has now become a collaborator on the project. Additionally, the students may be writing student research grant applications or planning presentations for conferences at this stages.

Stage 4 – Separation

…there is not usually a linear progression from one stage to another, but rather progress is made in fits and leaps.

Finally in the separation stage, the mentee works even more autonomously, and the Photo Feb 21, 9 47 43 PMmentor embraces more the students’s decisions and relies on the mentee for taking over the project. It is even possible for students to go off onto new projects and ideas of their own undertaking, The mentee may now to serving as a mentor to other students and the cycle may begin again. It should be noted that throughout this scenario, there is not usually a linear progression from one stage to another, but rather progress is made in fits and leaps.

Read the entire article here: RoleOfMentorArticle


43Mitch Malachowski, PhD, has been on the faculty at University of San Deigo since 1984. He believes strongly in finding ways to enhance student learning and student outcomes and makes this a priority in his teaching, research and service. He teaches courses in various aspects of organic chemistry and organic chemistry laboratories. His research interests range from the synthesis of novel organic molecules to the history and philosophy of science to the proper role of research at undergraduate institutions. He has served as the president of the Council on Undergraduate Research and a Chemistry councilor. Malachowski has received three University Professorships from USD and the Charles B. Willard award for distinguished career achievement from Rhode Island College. He was the recipient of the 2014 CUR Fellows Award and was named the 2014 CASE/Carnegie Foundation California Professor of the year.

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