Written by Dr. Donna Bickford, Associate Director in the Office for Undergraduate Research
This is a timely moment to be thinking about mentoring. The Chronicle of Higher Education just published Beth McMurtrie’s piece on the importance of mentoring junior faculty. In June, Inside Higher Ed’s Colleen Flaherty wrote about the increasing insistence of funding agencies that the grants they fund include robust mentoring plans. And, UNC’s own Katie Walker notes the dearth of information for and attention to graduate and professional students who are mentoring undergraduates. At OUR, of course, we are particularly interested in encouraging effective and impactful mentoring of undergraduates by all the other members of our research community with whom they interact.
One of the sessions I attended at the recent Council on Undergraduate Education (CUR) conference was on Mentor Training, Engagement and Evaluation. My colleague in the URPD Division, Linda Blockus from the University of Missouri-Columbia, along with Jessica Brown from California State University at Monterey Bay, presented the workshop which focused on responding to this question: “Given all that we ask of our undergraduate research mentors, how do we best train, sustain, and provide feedback to mentors at all stages of their careers?”
Blockus and Brown detail a number of reasons for training mentors including:
- Improving the undergraduate research experience for everyone
- Increasing buy-in
- Creating community
- Sharing resources
- Responding to changing student demographics
They also pointed out that, in addition to training faculty, postdoctoral scholars and graduate students in good practices for mentoring undergraduate researchers, we need to educate the undergraduates themselves about how to be good mentees.
Mentoring workshops and periodic roundtables focused on topics relevant to mentoring relationships can help educate mentors as well as provide support and guidance around the mentoring experience. These can also be used to for mentors to share effective strategies and to provide feedback to each other. Some of the topics Blockus and Brown discuss in the workshops and roundtables they facilitate include:
- Planning a productive experience with your student(s)
- Guiding students through the abstract writing process
- Establishing expectations with Students: Hiring, Firing, Contracts, & more!
- Maintaining effective communication
- The (unspoken) role of the mentor in the fellowship application process
- Conveying Ethical and Responsible Conduct of Research to Undergraduates
- Maximizing your Time as a Mentor/Maximizing your Mentee’s Time
- Addressing Diversity
- Best practices in identifying undergraduate research projects
- Introducing Reading the Primary Literature to students in your lab
Blockus and Brown also noted the need to educate P&T committees about the significance of mentoring undergraduate research. In addition to asking mentors and mentees to consider what success for an undergraduate researcher “looks like” to the student and to the mentor, they ask “What does success for a faculty member ‘look like’ to the P&T committee?”
Perhaps the most important point made in this session was the need to articulate and discuss expectations – both the expectations the mentor has of the mentee and the expectations the mentee has for the mentor. Both parties have assumptions about the experience and it’s important to make those assumptions visible and use them to open a conversation. Blockus shared a Goal Planning Worksheet her program uses with students in Missouri’s summer science research programs which asks students to identify their learning goals for the summer and to reflect on their expectations of the mentoring experience.
Some questions for mentors to consider about their expectations for their undergraduate researchers include:
- What expectations do you have for undergraduate researchers you are mentoring?
- How are expectations conveyed to students?
- When are these expectations best conveyed? During hiring? During the first week? As feedback in a month’s time? As needed?
- When do the expectations for students change? How are the new expectations conveyed?
- When students fail to meet expectations, how do you handle that?
- When a student is working with a ‘surrogate’ mentor (grad student, post doc, tech), how are expectations established, communicated, and monitored?
- If things begin to go downhill, how will you handle that? What steps will you take?
- What questions do you ask when agreeing to work with a student researcher?
- What are your expectations for students becoming independent learners? How are these expectations conveyed to students?
- If the student is working with you in a lab setting or on a research team, what are your expectations for attendance at and participation in lab/team meetings?
Finally, here are some additional mentoring resources you might find useful:
CUR has published a handbook on How to Mentor Undergraduate Researchers (scroll down for this 2010 volume).
The University of Wisconsin at Madison provides a number of online mentoring resources.
The HHMI-funded mentoring handbook, Entering Mentoring, is available at our website. Although it is geared to scientists, much of the material is relevant to mentoring in other disciplines. This handbook is used as the basis for a mentoring workshop offered periodically by OUR Liaison Dr. Jenny Hayden.
Nature’s Guide for Mentors is very extensive and includes a self-assessment mechanism for mentors.