From the Science Student Council

The How and Why of Mentoring Undergrads

Mentoring involves investing time and sharing expertise to enhance another’s knowledge and skills.

By Abby Adler

As graduate students we have many daily responsibilities, including teaching, conducting research, and attending classes. Often, we are also called upon by our faculty advisors to help mentor undergraduate students in the lab. Although this may be viewed as just another time-consuming responsibility, mentoring undergrads actually has a number of benefits.

What do I mean by mentoring? Mentoring involves investing time and sharing expertise to enhance another’s knowledge and skills. It can take the form of leading a weekly discussion group for undergrads, supervising research assistants to run experiments for your dissertation, or advising a senior honors thesis on experimental design, informed consent and statistical analysis. Undergraduates are often interested in learning about how to get into graduate school, and because we’ve already been through that process, we have a lot to share.

But why do it? Undergraduate students interested in pursuing a career in research need to gain experience, and working with a graduate student is often less intimidating than working with faculty. At the same time, you gain research assistants who can assist you in return for course credit. Being a mentor is also an opportunity for you to share your enthusiasm for psychology and discuss your research interests, as well as develop your mentoring style prior to becoming a professor—when this will be expected of you.

Since your first exposure to mentoring will likely be with undergraduate research assistants, here are some tips that will make this experience more rewarding*:

  • Define clear expectations for your mentee, including the required time commitment and specified role. Responsibilities may include data entry, running subjects, or conducting literature reviews.

  • Provide opportunities for greater responsibilities as your mentee demonstrates proficiency. This will help preserve motivation and interest.

  • Schedule regular meetings to discuss progress and address any problems that arise. These meetings are best in-person rather than over e-mail.

  • Don’t assume that students understand everything you say (even if they nod). Provide background reading and opportunities to discuss the purpose of the project. Set aside time for your mentees to ask questions.
    Be encouraging and supportive even if a mistake is made. Discuss what led to the error and how to correct it in the future.

Some research assistants may wish to take on more responsibilities and conduct independent projects.  Honors students can take up a lot of time, so make it clear how you will be involved (e.g., that you won't do it for them) and how much time you can devote to their project. Here are some additional tips specifically related to mentoring honors thesis students:

  • Help your mentee establish deadlines for various parts of the project.  This will ensure that you are available to supervise the entire project and that things get done on time.

  • Encourage your mentee to discuss their research project with peers. Provide opportunities at lab meetings or group discussions for presentations.

  • Be friendly and helpful, but continue to assume a role of authority/expert.

The impact graduate students can have on undergraduate students may not be apparent initially, but the investment is still worthwhile. Taking the time to teach an undergrad how to read (and understand) a research article will have a lasting impact on them, and they may even thank you for it later!

*adapted from Mentoring Tips from Buffalo State Colleagues