Working with undergraduates on research projects provides unique opportunities for collaboration and publications. As faculty, we enjoy exchanging ideas with intelligent and motivated students – we are training a new generation of scholars and practitioners! In this blog post, Dr. Rebecca Jones and Dr. George Shields summarize their thoughts on why mentoring is valuable, and also make recommendations for effective mentoring.
Undergraduates may be less prepared for independent work, but often can be taught quickly. Talk about your scholarly interests in your classes and encourage interested students to meet with you. Tell the success stories of your prior students, such as those who have published with you or gone on to greater things. Access university and departmental resources to attract interested students, e.g. university databases and/or departmental billboard space. Finally, you can ask undergraduate or graduate teaching assistants to recommend undergrads in your area and encourage your current students to recruit their own replacements.
A careful and detailed letter from a research mentor can mean an extra stipend in graduate school or securing the interview for the right job.
In addition to regular guidance with their research project, students look to their research mentors for advice in planning professional progress and achieving necessary milestones. They also need out help finding opportunities for and assistance with professional publications and conference presentations. Many students will look to list their research mentor on their resume and will ask for letters of reference to pursue subsequent professional opportunities.
Beginning a productive relationship
Start out with a clear project timeline and goals. Make it obvious: when will the student be working, what will the project involve, and with whom will he/she interact? Determine frequency and method for advising meeting and be flexible about your student’s time. These details should be verbally negotiated, ideally summarized in writing. If the project is being completed for a class, then there should be clear expectations for a grade. Finally, develop a plan for disseminating the work.
…mentoring an undergraduate is an investment in the person not just the researcher.
In many ways, mentoring an undergraduate is an investment in the person not just the researcher. You should connect regularly: we recommend at least weekly, with your mentee. These connections could be face-to-face, of via email, blogs, wiki… by whatever means is easiest to keep in touch with your undergraduates. Be honest about your expectations and encourage an open professional dialogue with your mentee about the work. You are the model for the problem solving and critical thinking skills required to be successful. Requiring regular feedback in the form of lab notebooks or weekly email reports is one tested method that has helped keep students on track.
It is important to create a safe place for students to talk to you…
It is important to create a safe place for students to talk to you; don’t always trust when they say “I’m fine.” Remember that for a new researcher, the process can seem daunting and redundant, so take time to speak encouraging words often and help your student see the big picture. You cannot underestimate the power of positive and constructive feedback.
Also, many students expect projects to take a very linear course, but as we know, research can tend to meander. Together, you and your student should adjust goals and discuss progress regularly. Don’t be surprised if a project shifts focus a few times and help them learn that failure can be good. Finally, creating a peer group of scholars is a good model for retaining UR students. Whenever possible, encourage your research students to interact with and support each other. Research group social events can be a boon for productivity and morale.
Whether from personality or circumstances, conflicts are inevitable. Keeping clear lines of open and honest communication will ameliorate these challenges. Sometimes the goals of the mentor do not align with the goals of the student; thus it is important to reassess goals and expectations at regular intervals. If a mentoring relationship is not working out and issues cannot be resolved, faculty should seek counsel from their chair or a peer. Students may be very hesitant to admit they don’t want to continue a project. Help them to understand that ending a collaboration does not imply personal rejection. As a more seasoned researcher, you can recognize when your student needs to move on, and help them connect with new mentors in their field.
Reaching an endpoint
As a project draws to a close or, more likely, a graduation date is looming, you can help your student disseminate their work by encouraging them to work on a paper or present at an ACS meeting. There are specific undergraduate sessions at all national ACS meetings: historically, the majority of undergraduates attend the spring meeting. Look for undergraduate sessions in the CHED division. Students with high caliber results are also welcome to present in the division appropriate to their projects. Be sure to look for university and department level funding to help offset the cost to the student.
Besides dissemination, be prepared to be a reference for professional opportunities for your student. A careful and detailed letter from a research mentor can mean an extra stipend in graduate school or securing the interview for the right job. Also, take time to reflect on the experience of mentoring this student. Think about what worked and what didn’t; what will you do differently next time? Finally, some mentoring relationships can bloom into enduring friendships, and former students become new peers. Enjoy this added benefit, if it comes to you, and savor a renewed passion for your own scholarship. Seeing our students succeed in research can be as gratifying as our own scholarly achievements.
~Rebecca M. Jones, PhD Associate Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, STEM Accelerator, College of Science, George Mason University, firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. Jones is committed to excellence in undergraduate chemical education. As a physical inorganic chemist, her research explored the electronic structures of transition metal complexes. As a chemical educator, she is developing and assessing innovative pedagogy for general chemistry. As a scholar, she seeks to understand the perspectives of students and faculty engaged in undergraduate research. She serves as the Secretary for the Mason chapter of Sigma Xi, a premier scientific research society and is an active member of the American Chemical Society, AAAS, and the Council on Undergraduate Research.
~George C. Shields, PhD, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost, Professor of Chemistry at Furman University A national leader in undergraduate research, Shields has collaborated with over 100 undergraduates in meaningful projects in the fields of computational chemistry, structural biochemistry and science education. His most current research involves using computational methods to gain insights into biochemistry and environmental chemistry. Since 1990, Shields has received more than $6 million in external research grants from many foundations and funding agencies, including the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. He has published more than 80 scientific and six educational papers since 1983, including 52 scientific papers with 59 undergraduates working in his research group since 1991.
OSCAR, George Mason University, http://oscar.gmu.edu, accessed 9-11-14.
“What Makes a Good Mentor?” Dr. John V. Richardson Jr., Associate Dean, UCLA Graduate Division, August 2005, http://polaris.gseis.ucla.edu/jrichardson/documents/mentor.htm, accessed 9-11-14.
Temple, L., Sibley, T.Q., and Orr, A.J. (2010). How to Mentor Undergraduate Researchers, Washington, DC: Council on Undergraduate Research.