It’s true – undergraduate students don’t exactly have the best reputation around research labs. But, as a former undergrad researcher (and now PhD student) myself, I’ve found that a little mentoring can go a long way. Throughout my journey, I’ve picked up a few lessons that have been helpful in advising new scientists, and that I hope will be useful to others.
Here are my 10 tips that will allow even the most reluctant mentor to develop a rewarding mentorship with undergrads in the lab.
1. Welcome them!
First things first, give them the tour. It’s a time-honored tradition to parade new students through the lab, pointing out expensive instruments and awkwardly introducing them to busy people who look mildly annoyed. But there’s a reason for this: new students need to know where things are and who to look to for help if you’re not around. Plus, work is just better when you feel like part of a community. In the past, I’ve worked for years next to people without knowing their names. Now I make it a goal to meet everyone from PIs to janitorial staff, and to introduce my mentees to them as well.
2. Understand their reasons for doing research
When you understand your student’s motivation for joining the lab, you can tailor your mentorship to help them reach their goals. Are they just trying to get research experience so they can check a box on their med school application? That’s not necessarily a bad thing. This could be a chance for them to see how research can inform medical knowledge. You never know, they may end up loving research so much that they change their career path. Many a great scientist was once set on the pre-med track before getting their hands dirty in the lab.
It’s also good to keep in mind that students come from a variety of backgrounds before stepping into the lab, so it pays to be patient and understanding at first. Realize that their interests may change over time and your advising may have to change with it.
3. Set expectations
You should have clear expectations for your students, and they for you. Put them in writing if you have to. What are the ground rules? What schedule will they keep? What do they hope to get out of their experience? What do they need from you? As a mentor, I’ve always found that if I set high expectations, students will rise to the occasion and deliver. I also highly recommend setting a goal for your student – such as giving a lab meeting talk or presenting at a symposium – so that both of you have something to work toward besides the endless grind of data collection.
4. Give the big picture
It’s easy to forget how much you know and how much a new student may not. Give newbies a quick overview of your work and the work they’ll be doing, including lots of basic background info. I also like to send them an important paper or two and have a quick discussion later to make sure we’re on the same page (if there’s one thing undergrads are good at it’s reading). If I find myself struggling to give a good overview of my research, it’s a sign that I need to clarify my own thinking.
5. Give the nitty-gritty
It drives me crazy when I ask a student why they’re doing something in the lab and they respond with something like “because X person said so.” If you assign some work to your mentee, explain the purpose. When they know the why, they will care more about the outcome and do a better job. I also tell my students to look up every single reagent in a protocol and write down what it does. What’s in “Buffer A” and what’s it doing in your reaction?
6. Check in on them
As your student gets more comfortable in the lab, you can let them operate more independently. Still, it’s good to check in every once in a while to make sure they’re still performing procedures the way you trained them to. Anyone can get a little sloppy after a while. It’s also beneficial to ask theoretical questions about what they’re doing from time to time to make sure they remember the “nitty-gritty” stuff from number 5.
7. Treat them like colleagues.
An experienced undergrad can be a huge asset in the lab. Offer them ownership of their project – this was hugely motivating for me as a student. Having my own research gave me meaning in a way that coursework and exams did not, and ultimately inspired me to attend grad school. Now with my own students, I stress the importance of asking questions and getting better at asking questions. Including students in important scientific discussions (even if they struggle at first) lets them know you value their ideas and encourages them to always be thinking about the hard questions.
8. Encourage growth.
Failed experiments and unexpected results are minor setbacks in the short-term but big opportunities for learning in the long term. Foster a growth mindset. Outside of the lab, I always recommend that undergrads find ways to present their research. From there, they may even have the opportunity to contribute to writing a paper. During my undergrad, I was in a lab that had three first author papers by undergrads within the span of a few years! This was only made possible through incredible mentorship.
9. Celebrate every win.
Little wins like a successful cloning may seem small to you but can feel very big to an undergrad. Congratulate them and revel in their success a little before moving on. Allowing ourselves to feel good about small accomplishments will keep us nourished during the long, long periods between big accomplishments.
10. Finally, encourage them to seek out other mentors
You can’t do it all alone; it takes a lab to raise an undergrad researcher! Your PI, other grad students, post-docs, and your mentee’s peers can also pitch in to make it a rewarding experience for everyone.
If you think I missed any, let me know! I’m always striving to be a better mentor.