Research-backed advice for mentoring researchers

Title: Students as ecologists: Strategies for successful mentorship of undergraduate researchers
Authors: Nathan Emery, Amanda Hund, Romi Burks, Meghan Duffy, Christine Scoffoni, and Andrea Swei
First author’s institution: Michigan State University
Journal: Ecology and Evolution, 2019, 9:4316-4326 [open access]

With the academic year over, many undergraduate students will begin working on summer research projects, often through programs designed to provide undergraduates with research experience such as the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REUs). While these students are formally assigned to work with a faculty member, much of the student’s training and day-to-day interactions are handled by graduate students and postdocs in the lab. As summer research is often an undergraduate’s first major research experience, graduate students and postdocs play an important role in mentoring these new researchers. Yet, most researchers do not receive any formal training in mentoring and are left to mentor in the style they have been mentored or to figure it out on their own. As scientists, we use scientific literature to inform our decisions in the lab so why not use the scientific literature to understand how to effectively mentor an undergraduate researcher? While today’s paper is aimed at mentoring ecology undergraduate students, it provides a broad framework for mentoring an undergraduate researcher.

The authors break mentoring into five areas: recruitment and retention, communication and contracts, peer mentoring, benchmarks, deadlines, and rest, and student ownership and publication.

Recruitment and Retention

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To mentor an undergraduate researcher, one must first have an undergraduate researcher. While there are many ways to go about recruiting students, the authors suggest that faculty should actively advertise positions open to undergraduates in their labs rather than wait for a student to ask, as the former creates an equal footing for all students to get involved in research. Before interviewing any of the prospective researchers, the faculty member and other members of the lab should create a list of possible projects and challenges associated with each (examples in table 1). By creating a list of projects, the student can select a project of mutual interest, thereby helping them feel that the project is theirs (we’ll return to the importance of this shortly). Ideally, the projects should be tailored to be at the level of the student’s current abilities but also allow them room to grow and develop new skills .

Table 1 preplanning questions
Table 1: Possible questions and reasons for considering those questions the faculty member and other lab members should address before hiring an undergraduate researcher. (Table 1 in paper).

When “interviewing” the student or reviewing applications, consider what traits are valued and needed to succeed in the lab. While this serves to identify who would be a good fit in the lab, it can also help check biases. For example, does a student really need to have above a 3.8 grade point average to work in the lab? In addition, when “interviewing” the student, include other members of the lab. This both increases the number of viewpoints and can make the student feel more comfortable during the “interview.”

Communication and Contracts


Now that the student has joined the lab, making sure their expectations match those of the lab is critical. Differing expectations between mentors and mentees are the most common factor underlying problematic research experiences . For example, failure happens all the time in research but most schooling treats failure as a bad thing rather than an opportunity to learn. One way to address the differing expectations is to make a research contract outlining the expectations for the student, how to communicate with their supervisor (such as by email, expect a response within a day, etc.), how they are expected to communicate within the laboratory community, their working schedule, deadlines, and how authorship of publications in the lab is decided. Expectations for meeting with their supervisor should also be included as meeting as necessary both to ensure the student’s work is moving in the intended direction and to build a quality mentoring relationship with the student. Don’t forget to take notes during those meetings. Ideally, the notes should be stored in a shared location, such as a Google Doc, so that both the mentee and the mentor can review what was discussed in the previous meeting and what the goals for upcoming meeting are.

Peer Mentors

Depending on the structure of the lab, having peer mentors may be a useful way to bring in newer students and retain older students. In this model, the more senior students take on some of the mentoring of the newer students in the lab, serving as role models for these students .  Besides helping with logistics, allowing senior students to serve as peer mentors can increase their sense of self-worth and belonging, two key ingredients for retention.

Benchmarks, Deadlines, and Rest


Unlike classes, research doesn’t often have clear deadlines and as many of us know all too well, a lack of deadlines is an invitation for procrastination. To help students stay on track, make sure to set deadlines and don’t be afraid to change them as necessary. If a student isn’t making as much progress as expected, discuss with them how the deadline needs to be altered to give them enough time to finish.

In addition to setting deadlines to complete tasks, set benchmarks for where the student should be in terms of their work. This doesn’t mean saying they need to have X and Y completed by a certain date but rather that they should be ready to present their work at a group meeting or a university poster session on a certain date. Group meetings and poster sessions are a great way for the student to get feedback and for others to see them as scientists. Remember, as a mentor your job is to be supportive so any feedback should not be overly judgement or critical.

Most importantly, communicate the importance of work-life balance. Scientists are often thought of as spending all their time in the lab and it’s better to combat that negative stereotype sooner rather than later . Taking time off is essential to being a good researcher and after a certain point, working extra hours doesn’t actually lead to increased productivity .

Student Ownership and Publication

Ideally, when a student works on a project, they should identify the project as their own. In fact, a student developing ownership of their project has been found to be a key component of having a good mentoring relationship . As a mentor make sure to slowly increase the amount of responsibilities the student has and provide positive reinforcement to help develop this sense of ownership . Part of student ownership means allowing them to make choices about how to proceed with their project rather than telling them what to do.

During a typical summer research project or even a semester-long project, the student will not have completed enough to warrant publication which means a post-summer or post-graduation plan will need to be created for how to keep the student involved in the work or publication once they have left the lab. This could be asking them to do a write-up at the end of their time in the lab or asking them to write or edit part of the manuscript. In addition, it is important to manage student expectations here. Unlike submitting papers for classes, submitting a journal article takes time; sometimes it takes a few months just to get feedback on a paper, much less get it published!


Much like research itself, mentoring is often a trial-and-error process. Hopefully the framework and tips provided here with remove some of the error portion and create a better experience for both you and your mentee.

Table from today’s paper used under the Creative Commons Attribution License. Header image used under CC BY-SA 2.0 License and can be found here.


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