In this blog post, Dr. Jennifer Faust details her strategies for effectively mentoring research students. There is no perfect recipe for churning out undergraduate student theses, but all you really need are set of flexible guidelines to keep you (and your students) sane along the way.
Like many new faculty members, I started my career with no formal training in research mentoring, but two and a half years and 11 thesis students later, I am settling into a rhythm for advising undergraduate researchers.
Here I will focus specifically on mentoring senior thesis students as an early career faculty member, though many of the same strategies apply toward mentoring any research student at any career stage. In spite of how my lab often looks, I like to keep things organized, so I have divided my approach into eight strategies.
1. Make a research syllabus.
We make syllabi for all our classes, so why not for research too? I use my research syllabus to communicate what I expect from my students (time commitment, safety and integrity, lab notebooks, equipment use, meeting preparation, and thesis requirements), and also what the students can expect from me. Given the growing awareness of mental health among today’s student population, I end the syllabus with a section about support for students’ overall wellbeing.
2. Plan milestones.
I work at an undergraduate institution where every senior in every department is required to carry out an independent research project, so I was fortunate to inherit a pre-built structure that gives students milestones to work towards. I space out deadlines for drafts of thesis sections from October through February. In November, the students give a short presentation with an overview of their projects and any preliminary results (so the students suddenly become very motivated to spend extra time in the lab at the end of October). Full theses are due after spring break in March, and we hold oral defenses and a capstone poster session in April. Even without such a regimented program, you could build external motivation for your students through an end-of-term poster session, for example. Jim Phillips wrote a great piece in March of 2016 about how he implements “research homework” for all his of students.
Putting goals into words gives the research advisor and the student an opportunity to get to know each other and to sketch out a research vision that excites both the mentor and the mentee.Jennifer Faust
3. Begin in the library.
In the spring semester of their junior year, our students write a full research proposal that includes background and significance, specific aims, research design and methods, a timeline, and a budget. In theory, students should be able to hit the ground running at the start of their senior year…once they remember in August what they submitted in May. Without a seminar class dedicated to the research proposal, you could pare down the preparation to specific aims at a minimum. Putting goals into words gives the research advisor and the student an opportunity to get to know each other and to sketch out a research vision that excites both the mentor and the mentee. When crafting a project, I try to take into consideration why the student is interested in research and what they hope to get out of the experience.
4. Create a schedule.
I typically have 2-5 thesis students and 1-4 younger students in my research group during the academic year. I meet individually with each student for 30 minutes per week, and I hold a 30-minute weekly group meeting with the seniors. Based on advice from my colleagues, I’ve started holding “lab hours”, which are like office hours, but for research. By literally blocking off time in my calendar, I prevent other obligations from creeping in. I try to match up my hours with my students’ schedules as best as possible. To avoid scrolling through endless Doodle polls, I ask students to send me the times when they’re not available. (If anyone, has a more efficient route, I’d love to hear it!)
I’ve started holding “lab hours”, which are like office hours, but for research. By literally blocking off time in my calendar, I prevent other obligations from creeping in.Jennifer Faust
5. Make the most of group meetings.
Of course I use group meetings for general housekeeping practices and trainings, but I also use the time for students’ professional development; they’re a great no-stakes opportunity for students to grow comfortable talking about research in front of their peers. I reserve an early group meeting in the fall for each student to present one figure from a paper related to their project. Later, we have a meeting when students present one figure from their own research. As the school year progresses, group meeting becomes a great time to facilitate peer review of thesis drafts.
I ask them to respond to three questions the day before their weekly meeting: (i) what are your goals for the upcoming week?, (ii) what progress have you made on your goals from last week?, and (iii) what would you like to discuss at our next meeting?Jennifer Faust
6. Make the most of individual meetings.
I want my students to take responsibility for driving their research, so I ask them to respond to three questions the day before their weekly meeting: (i) what are your goals for the upcoming week?, (ii) what progress have you made on your goals from last week?, and (iii) what would you like to discuss at our next meeting? I also ask the students to update a shared file with results of their most recent experiments. The questions help keep us on track during our meetings; 30 minutes usually fly by quickly, but they can really drag when a student arrives with nothing prepared.
7. Use technology to work smarter.
Slack is hugely popular for workplace management. Personally, I’ve fallen in love with Basecamp (thanks to Raychelle Burks, aka Dr. Rubidium, for introducing me). Basecamp is a modular project management site that is free for educational use. It automatically coordinates our weekly check-in questions, and I use the messaging and file sharing features to remove research from the noise of my email inbox. For my own wellbeing, I’ve turned off email notifications on my phone, but my students know that they can always use Basecamp to reach me quickly for research.
8. Have fun!
Students often approach the senior thesis with trepidation, but a shared senior experience creates great opportunities for cohort-building during the academic year. Was it really necessary to spend time in group meeting to convert our Chemdraw structures to Wingdings? No, but it was definitely worth the laughs!
As we seek to support underrepresented minorities in chemistry, effective mentoring plays an incredibly important role. Each student is obviously different, and I enjoy seeing each one grow in unique ways. I don’t intend this list to be a recipe toward churning out theses; it’s more of an evolving set of guidelines to keep me (and the students) sane along the way.
Dr. Jennifer Faust is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at College of Wooster in Ohio, where she engages undergraduate students in atmospheric chemistry research.