How intensively do you mentor undergrads working in your lab?

Based on some conversations I’ve had with colleagues recently, I’m starting to wonder whether I should do more intensive mentoring* of the students in my lab, especially related to long term goals and whether they’re on track to achieve those goals.

To start out with what I currently do: almost all of the students who work in my lab are paired with a grad student or a postdoc. That person does the day-to-day mentoring on a particular project. In addition, I meet with students more sporadically, with those meetings focusing more on bigger picture things – what projects they are working on, what their career goals are, applying for summer research positions, applying to grad school, etc. It’s tailored to the student’s interests, but, at the same time, I’m starting to wonder if it’s not specific or intensive enough.

My thoughts about this have been influenced by conversations with a few people (some at other schools), where it’s become clear that they are more. . . well, it’s hard to come up with the right word, but “proactive” and “intensive” both come to mind. These people will regularly go through their students transcripts with them, talking about what courses they’re taking, how they’re doing in those courses, what they need to change about how they’re studying/preparing, etc. This is done in the context of their goals – for example, if their goal is to go to grad school in Ecology, are they taking the right courses? Are they doing well in them? If not, what can they change about how they’re studying? Is there additional information that could be included in a letter of recommendation that would help explain a low grade?

I can see how this could be really useful, especially for students who don’t have other sources of this sort of information (e.g., first generation college students). I was pretty clueless about all these things as an undergrad — neither of my parents were traditional college students (my mother has a college degree, but she went to college as an adult after having children; my father does not have a college degree), and no one in my family had pursued an academic path. I think of how important some conversations were in helping me figure things out. For example, I very clearly remember a conversation with someone from my dorm floor my freshman year. In that conversation, he referred to people who were “just getting by” and then explained that, by that, he meant people who were getting B’s. I had been pretty happy with my B’s up until that point, and that conversation made me start thinking a lot harder about how I was doing, what I could change. And then there were many informal conversations during my time working in a research lab as an undergrad that helped me learn about grad school, the application process, etc.

So why haven’t I done this with undergrads in my lab? Well, for some reason, until I had these conversations over the past few months, it simply hadn’t occurred to me. As I said earlier, we had general conversations, but I never sat down with a student and his/her transcripts. Now that it’s been pointed out to me that some do this, I’m still a little hesitant. When I try to think about why, I think it’s because it would probably be awkward, at least in some cases. Note that I don’t think that’s a good reason – I’m just being honest about why I’m hesitating. It also is something that seems more in the role of an academic advisor — though, to be honest, I have no idea how much of that the students who work in my lab get. Certainly in my first few years in college, I received very little from my formal academic advisors.

I’d be really interested in hearing about our readers’ experiences. Did you receive this sort of mentoring? If so, how effective was it? Do you think something could have been done differently to make it more effective? Was it from a research advisor or an academic advisor? If you didn’t receive this mentoring, do you think it would have helped? And, if you mentor students now: have you tried this more hands-on approach? How do students respond? Or do you think it’s something an academic advisor should be doing?


*After I tweeted to say I’d put this post in the queue, there was a question of whether I was referring to is mentoring or advising. That’s a good question. I’m not fully sure of the distinction between the two, but I think my use of “mentoring” is consistent with the way it’s used here, where it says “In the broad sense intended here, a mentor is someone who takes a special interest in helping another person develop into a successful professional.”

14 thoughts on “How intensively do you mentor undergrads working in your lab?

  1. I think mentoring the undergrads in the lab is very important for all the reasons you give. We also have a one credit class all undergrads in our lab take every semester to be sure they get all the extras that go along with research. It is called Undergraduate Research Perspectives and has a different focus every semester, reading the literature, scientific communication, statistics tied to their own data, and always writing. I usually teach it, also involving postdocs. This semester two of them are teaching it without me. The mentoring workshop I went to at SACNAS talked a lot about really personalizing minority mentoring, asking them about their grades and courses and how they fit with career goals. Even if a more formal academic adviser does this stuff, it is better to have it come from someone they trust also.

  2. I am really uncertain about this one. I tend to avoid looking at my undergrads transcripts when they are working in my lab. Instead, I ask them about their career goals, then ask in general about their grades, the courses they are taking, and make recommendations. Part of my hesitancy comes from the fact that I also serve as the undergraduate chair. In our department (and in the Canadian system as a whole – unfortunately), there are a huge number of rules and regulations about what courses students take, prerequisites, etc. Giving advice to a student about taking a class may be very beneficial to them personally, but may screw up their ability to graduate in a timely manner. Really, I am just suggesting caution. I have had a handful of faculty members trying to help students, but inadvertently providing inaccurate advice that cost the students time and money. If you are going to provide advice, please you have a good understanding of the rules that govern what is needed for the degree. I know it took me several weeks to get my head around this when I started in my position as undergraduate chair. Also, reading transcripts (here we call them audits) and understanding what they meant, what still needed to be completed, etc was not trivial. Conversely, you could just preface everything by saying “they should check with their academic adviser to ensure that the advice you are providing them will allow them to stay on track to graduate”.

    • Agreed–some of the topics Meg refers to sound to me like academic advising rather than the sort of thing I’d expect to talk about with undergrad research assistants. But on the other hand, if it’s a big university I can imagine that many students find it easier to go to the one prof they happen to know for academic advising. Agree that the key is for faculty providing advice to know when they need to steer students to academic advisers.

  3. When I was an undergraduate I thought I would go the PhD route, likely in ecology. I ended up doing something different but with the clarity of hindsight, I realize I would have had some significant hurdles due to inadequate mentoring as a undergrad. Most importantly, I wasn’t taking all of the classes I would have needed. Specifically, I did not take statistics and no one ever suggested that I should consider doing so. Overall, the two professors who mentored me in college were great… but I do think it’s a bit shocking that I had essentially no guidance in selecting classes. I’m not sure who’s responsibility that should have been, and it didn’t need to be some big involved conversation, but it would have been nice if someone had told me that I’d need a statistics class.

  4. How about ask the individual undergrads what they would like for mentoring? (Crazy?)

    I technically had an academic advisor as an undergrad (at a place that prides itself on undergrad mentoring), but it was pretty useless. I had a scholarship that required a particular academic path and so didn’t need help choosing courses, which seemed to be the primary point of having an advisor. I honestly didn’t think I had any real questions for him, and he was happy to let me be.

    The first real mentoring I got was my senior year when I signed up for a senior project. So this guy was the equivalent to you, Meg — the person overseeing my undergrad research. He helped me learn to do research and, probably most importantly, how to present research. But there wasn’t any real career advising, and I wish there had been.

    I think it would have been helpful to know what sort of things I was doing in college would be important if (1) one wants to go to graduate school; vs. (2) one wants to get a job right out of college. They are different (but somewhat overlapping) things, but even if someone gets a job out of college and decides to do grad school later, they would have already thought about the process and know what it entails. Ditto if they went to grad school and then decided to get a job later.

    It’s really hard for most 18-22-year-olds to have much perspective on their life, and having older people help them understand the many different paths open to them can be enormously helpful.

    • I completely agree with Margaret, ask the undergrad what they want out of the project and what their career goals are. Based on their answers one can tailor the project and tasks the undergrad works on to the outcome/experiences they want. I stay away from advising what courses to take beyond general advice (e.g take a couple stats courses if you can) as I think that is best served by an academic adviser as Jeremy points out above. Full disclosure, I am Post Doc who has not mentored a lot of undergrads, but this has worked well for me so far.

  5. I’d agree with previous commenters that going over transcripts and advice on specific classes are something I would have gone to my academic/program advisor for, not something I would have expected from a lab mentor (also speaking from a Canadian perspective). The kind of advice that was absolutely invaluable for me from my senior thesis advisor in undergrad, though, were the more intangible parts of navigating the academic system (e.g. how to write a good email to a prospective grad school advisor, making sure to talk to current students, red flags to watch out for in potential lab groups, the difference between MSc. vs straight to PhD, etc.), and also advice on how the writing/publishing process works (how to write a paper and the steps involved in getting it through review, the importance of telling a good story with your science). He was also tremendously helpful in making sure I knew to apply to NSERC (the Canadian NSF GRFP equivalent), and reviewing my application materials.

    I ended up in a lab that was a really great fit for my MSc program, and looking back now, I think a lot of that can be attributed to having a really exceptional mentor in undergrad. Although, a senior thesis in my program was a significant chunk of time (the equivalent of 2 courses each semester of senior year, plus a full time summer research job in my case) – I worked in other labs for shorter periods, and the extent of the mentoring was much much less, probably because there was just a lot less investment/face time on both sides.

    • Knowing what grants to apply for is key- I had virtually no profs mentoring me during my honours thesis (supervisor about to retire, totally not engaged) and I made lots of mistakes that almost cost me a MSc. For example, I didn’t realize you had to apply for a masters NSERC grant the fall of your last undergrad year… Then I got rejection email after rejection email from MSc supervisors who could only take stidents with NSERC funding! Thankfully I eventually found a supervisor with enough cash to give me a chance (and got NSERC first year of my Msc). Anyway, it’s easy to forget how much undergrads may not know about the process of getting an MSc position. Talking about future plans early is key- and it doesn’t have to be earth-shattering pholosophical conversations either, just the basics of how to get from point A to point B.

  6. I have a negative story to share back from the time when I was an undergrad. I did my first internship very early compared to my other classmates, at a university lab. The professor who was running it supervised everyone himself. I would not call him a mentor, as he was only interested in maximising the amount of time everyone spent in the lab, even if that was to the detriment of our academic progress.

    Just to give you an example of his attitude, he insisted on having daily 1-hour lab meetings, before our first class of the day. Everyone in the lab was supposed to attend them and had to give a detailed description of what they did the previous day (including weekends!). On top of that, he wasn’t forgiving of mistakes when they happened.

    I originally planned to stay at this lab until the end of my undergrad studies, i.e. for at least 2 years. I left after three months and never looked back. My final year project supervisor was much better than that. He gave me quite good supervision all the way to publishing our work. He kept asking about my progress and even helped me make some good career decisions when I needed them.

  7. Huh. I was absolutely terrified of my undergraduate advisor (and still am — he’s now a collaborator), and though he tried to give me advice a couple times on things like classes and where to apply for grad school, much of it was fairly useless. (He was new to the department, essentially never interacted with undergrads, and had a habit of telling me that my class selection was wrong a few days after the end of the add/drop period, which then turned into him telling me that my summer plans were wrong during our last meeting before the start of the summer and then telling me that I had chosen the wrong university to do my PhD after I had already committed. Very well meaning advice, just not particularly helpful.) That being said, I had two professors in undergrad who did very proactively serve as mentors who were really helpful in everything from class selection (“here’s what you should take next year” = great!) to what things to apply for (well before the deadline!).

    As a PhD student who’s (co-)supervised a few undergraduate and Master’s students, I’ve found that students tend to ask advice from the most approachable people in their lives, regardless of how good that advice may be. Probably in part because I am young and female, I get asked all sorts of things that I can’t actually help with. Ideally undergrads will have someone in their lives that understands the system and can help with the logistic side, but in absence of that, I suppose the type of advice I can give is better than nothing? If nothing else, I can be sympathetic and point them in the right direction in terms of who they can talk to about a particular problem or quandary.

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  9. Mentoring has come a long way, baby. After dragging my grade point average from a 1.0 (got a D in calc, the only class I took in a pre-college summer semester) to a 3.4, I applied to grad school in a really clueless fashion. This yielded a fistful of rejections, prompting my undergraduate mentor to observe that, “It would be a shame to see someone of your caliber flushed,” and offer to take me on for a one-year coursework masters degree (to further raise my grade-point average). He then recommended that I apply to four schools. I got accepted at all of them (his letter must have been glowing), one with a full scholarship. He then recommended that I matriculate at Duke, with absolutely no promise of funding! I went, was miserable, got further poor advising, but then managed to redeem myself during a postdoc with Mark Rausher, who was and still is an awesome mentor and advisor.

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  11. Pingback: Mentoring plans: a really useful tool for PIs and their lab members | Dynamic Ecology

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