Mentoring Undergraduate Students

Published: Tues., Nov. 3, 2020, by Carmen Cano Roca

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Mentoring undergraduate students is a privilege for graduate students. It is an opportunity to meet new colleagues and practice your skills as a teacher and mentor. However, as anything worth doing, it can be pretty challenging. Here are some tips to make it the best experience for everyone involved.

Remember when you started. Before meeting this student, try to remember your first days in the lab. How did you feel? I was definitely overwhelmed and scared to break things. And I was also really excited about the cool science I would be able to do. Your student may feel similarly at the beginning of the experience. Also, recall which simple things you learned first, so you can identify where to start with your student.

Set goals and expectations. Talk to your student about why they are in the lab with you. I have done different internships; some were just me trying to fulfill a class requirement, while others were important experiences for me to get into graduate school. Every student is different, bringing a different set of skills and experiences. Knowing your student’s goals will help you determine the best activities for them to develop the skills they want. You should also discuss lab expectations from this student, whether it’s time spent in the lab or tasks completed. And don’t forget about lab safety!

Create a constructive environment. The idea is to decrease the initial fear and maintain the excitement. Your student should not be afraid of you. Mistakes will inevitably happen and you want your student to trust you enough to reach out to you about them before they can’t be corrected. My usual strategy is to point out challenges early on and to remind them to take their time. I also try to be very open about my own mistakes in the lab and how the vast majority of them can be fixed.

Make them part of the team. Undergrads can be an important part of your lab. They contribute to projects and help keep the lab running. I share a lot about the experiments I am doing, the papers I am reading, or the results I get. I also introduce my students to my lab mates and their projects. Undergrads may also get to participate in regular lab team meetings. The idea is to expose students to the science going on in your research group and the impact that you create as scientists. I like the days when I get to explain what I do; it helps me remember why I enjoy it. And hopefully the undergrad gets excited too.

Treat them like people. This is the most important point. Like you, undergraduates have a life beyond the lab. They will have good days and they will have bad days. Part of mentoring is getting through all of those with them, building a solid relationship where both of you can grow as professionals. Be patient and be kind.

If you do not work in a lab where you have opportunities to mentor undergraduates, you can also talk to your faculty and see if there are undergraduates looking for mentors in the department. UCARE students, McNair Scholars and FYRE students may all work in your department and often they are looking for graduate student mentors in addition to their faculty mentors.