Spending more time mentoring undergraduates as a postgrad is good for everyone, says Jenn Summers.There’s a difference between mentoring and doling out to-do lists. This is something I’ve learned over the past year, my first as a mentor. Mentoring undergrads became part of my job only recently – in the past, research came first. Most advisors value research outcomes over mentoring, and departments certainly place more value on publications. Before this past year, I was used to just a single undergrad working in my lab, and I thought of them as worker bees, not as future colleagues.
Put simply: I did not think about teaching in the lab.
Now, after guidance from recent research on mentoring, I realize that if graduate students like myself were more invested in mentoring, there would be many more small-but-important teaching opportunities.
At most universities, teaching and research are separate endeavors, though some rare universities are turning to research-based courses as ways of improving information retention and student engagement. Though things are changing, plenty of undergraduate students absorb facts in classrooms without ever having to produce them in a lab, in the field, or in a meta-analysis
Researchers have shown that mentoring and teaching in the lab can improve knowledge retention, increase graduation rates in the sciences, and increased likelihood to continue in the sciences. Dr. Erin Dolan, a biochemist at the University of Georgia, analyzed course-based undergraduate research experiences, mapping the trajectories of participating students.
In general, Dolan found that students had greater ownership over the projects they participated in, and participating undergraduates has better graduation and retention rates than those who did not participate. In other work, Dolan demonstrates that graduate students have a role to play in improving research as a mentoring tool.
This obviously appeals to faculty, but engaging students in research should nab attention from grad students, too. We grads can take undergrad research assistants as opportunities to mentor just like a faculty member. And it turns out that mentoring people gets them to do better work.
I can say that, based on my own experience mentoring three fantastic undergrads over the past year, everyone learns a lot.
For example, I’ve found that a few small changes in my mentoring style can spark a supportive community and mold an enjoyable, educational, and formative experience for participating undergraduates. Here are just a few of those things:
1. It’s important to have face time – work with your undergrads in the lab, clinic, or in the field. Too often, graduate students are not present for undergraduate work. The quality of work improves when an experienced mentor is present, and questions of all kinds can be rapidly addressed while working together.
2. Team-building is crucial – for example, my team of three takes turns getting snacks for the group: donut Mondays are particularly popular. In addition, they work together and rotate tasks regularly conducted in the lab, help quiz students with impending exams, and discuss university news. Most importantly, we have fun together. This type of cooperation and communication facilitates a team mentality. Alternatively, if you cannot be in the lab with your team regularly enough, holding a weekly meeting can provide opportunities to do more team-building.
3. Embrace diversity of age, educational background, and point of view. Having a team of undergraduates with different goals and educational experiences encourages everyone to appreciate a slightly different perspective, which encourages patience and understanding. In my lab, a range of ages provides perspective for each student, especially one freshman who benefits from hearing her junior and senior lab-mates weigh in on classes, professors, and test-taking strategies.
4. It’s important to give students the opportunity to address problems in experimental design or troubleshoot on the fly. This encourages them to take ownership of the project and engage in critical thinking, even if you don’t always end up using their ideas. Take your hands off the wheel and let them take control, and help by double-checking their work at a later stage.
5. Make them write grant proposals. For one, it can be a formative learning experience for undergrads, an opportunity to flex their writing muscles. If done right, it also builds their confidence and can encourage team collaboration for group proposals. Even writing short proposals to be shared within the lab group can be an instructive and confidence-boosting exercise. Regardless of their goals, practice in planning, organizing, and writing will prove useful later in their careers.
6. Have an open dialogue with your students. Encourage them to ask questions about research and point out when their question is a good one, while gently addressing errors in logic or if they’re missing key pieces of information. Be up front about your own flaws – I tell my students about my early failed experiments whenever they trip up in the lab. Relating to them about mistakes can create environment where a student is comfortable asking questions about protocols and about life as a scientist. Sometimes, once they’re comfortable talking with you, you’ll get proposals for experiments they thought up.
Undergraduate research can and should be more than just a job. My undergrads have advanced in their attention to detail and are invested in the work itself. The outcomes from using my strategies are understandably difficult to quantify. However, within my lab, two undergraduates have received two grants for funding independent research, and one has used her experiences as the basis for an award-winning honors research paper on the impact of research students.
The grants and awards are incredible. I’m so proud of my students. From my perspective though, I’m most excited about building a community where we rely on each other, can provide comfort and support during stressful times and a sense of belonging and purpose always.
Jenn Summers is a PhD Student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Tennessee Knoxville