Mentoring Undergraduates

As a graduate student, it's likely that you'll be responsible for supervising undergraduate research or teaching assistants at some point during your graduate career. Here are some tips on supervising and mentoring undergraduates.

Adopt a mentor state of mind.

Before mentoring undergraduate students, it’s important to understand your students’ expectations as well as what they expect from you. Review literature about mentoring and take some time to think back to your experiences of being mentored. In what ways were your mentors helpful and in what situations were mentoring experiences unproductive? You also may benefit from discussions about successful mentoring with the undergraduate adviser in your department, your own mentor or other graduate students who mentor undergraduates. 

Build an effective team.

If your mentoring experience involves an undergraduate research team, finding the right students and proper training is essential to build an effective and successful team. Before you interview potential students, think about what you’re looking for in a student researcher. Do you want someone with prior research or SPSS experience? Are multi-tasking, communication and problem-solving skills important to your project? If you receive a large number of applications, use an e-mail questionnaire and minimum GPA requirement to help the more qualified applicants rise to the top of your pool.

Even the smallest mistake can have large consequences in research, making training an important part of your experience with your undergraduate research team. Work with each undergraduate until both of you are comfortable with the student completing tasks independently. It’s easier to spend extra time with a student early to make sure they understand the process than to retrain a student if poor understanding leads to errors later.

Teaching your students to take pride in their work is another way to minimize mistakes. To an undergraduate who has never seen a research project through from beginning to end, a task like data entry may not seem important. To a graduate student supervisor who knows firsthand what can happen when data entry is not accurate and complete, this is an essential task. Help your students understand how the work they do impacts the entire project by walking them through the steps that come after their tasks are complete.

Give credit when credit is due.

Heading off mistakes and dealing with problems is often a much more immediate concern in the lab than praising a job well done.  However, students who feel like they are providing a necessary skill and are doing the job well are more likely to go above and beyond the call of duty. Verbal praise goes a long way but is not always possible when working with a large team. If this is the case, take a few minutes at the beginning of each team meeting to acknowledge and give credit to students who performed especially well during the week.

Think outside the lab.

Being part of a research team is a valuable experience for undergraduate students. As a mentor, you have an opportunity to help students make the most of this experience.

Ask students to read “gold standard” scientific writing samples and then to write a short literature review. This review could be related to your project or the student’s personal research interests. Spend time helping the student revise and improve the literature review.

This activity gives you time to meet individually with students and discuss different aspects of research and research projects, giving the students increased confidence in their research skills. These one-on-one meetings also give you the opportunity to discuss graduate school and professional opportunities with your mentees. As a graduate student mentor, you have recent experience writing a purpose statement, taking the GRE and finding a good fit in a graduate program. Your undergraduate student mentees can certainly benefit from learning about your experiences.

Being an undergraduate student mentor is more than a rewarding experience. Mentoring gives you the opportunity to learn useful supervisory and management skills that carry over into professional and academic pursuits long after your graduate student career is over.

More about mentoring undergraduates

Bender, C. (2000). Advance science: Mentor an undergraduate. The Pharmacologist, 42, 141-145.

Cesa, I.I., & Fraser, S.C. (1989). A method for encouraging the development of good mentor-protégé relationships. Teaching of Psychology, 16 (3), 125-128.

Landrum, R.E., & Nelsen, L.R. (2002). The undergraduate research assistantship: An analysis of benefits. Teaching of Psychology, 29, 15-19.

Resources

Evans, S.E., Perry, A.R., Kras, A., Gale, E.B., Campbell, C. (2009). Supervising and mentoring undergraduates: A graduate student perspective. The Behavior Therapist, 32, 77-82.