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7 Tips to Keeping Your Undergraduate Student Volunteers Interested in the Lab

Posted in: Soft Skills and Tools

Although we do our best to keep undergraduate students involved in experiments, they are often just in it for a letter of recommendation. Here are some ways to help them enjoy their lab experience and keep them invested in the projects.

1.    Maintain Mutual Respect:

The relationship between primary investigators (PI) and undergrads differs slightly from the relationship between postdocs or grad students and undergrads. Demonstrating respect to your students will likely beget respect from them in return, and will form the basis of a good lab environment. Remind the students that if they are running late because their class, work, or previous obligation, they just need to send you a message to let you know, and you will do the same. Let undergrads know what you expect from them upfront, and they will undoubtedly rise to the occasion.

2.    Make a Positive Team Environment:

Let the undergrads know that they are all equal – no one is in competition with anyone else in the lab. Encourage everyone to work together. Remind your undergrads at every opportunity, that they are doing a fantastic job. Thank the student for going above and beyond in the lab – they appreciate being acknowledged. Take the time to show your students how to set up experiments, analyze data, and ask them questions so that they understand the principles behind the experiment. Let them know that troubleshooting is all part of science. Having respect for our undergrads helps them to have an even greater respect for us in return.

3.    Ask the Students to Set Goals for Their Research Experience:

Remind the undergrads that the lab should be mutually beneficial – projects should be advanced because of them and they should get career mentorship and guidance in return. The lab is not just about securing a future letter of recommendation – it should be about earning co-authorship on a scientific publications or posters, presenting a poster, and learning new techniques that will strengthen their curriculum vitae (CV) and resume. Encourage them to think about their research goals and ask for guidance to achieve these goals. Endorse the students for new techniques learned on their LinkedIn profiles. Remind the students what they need to do to become co-author on a publication. Help them to constructively criticise the literature. Be firm when you let your students know that just merely being in the lab does not secure them a letter of recommendation – they must earn it by contributing to the ongoing projects and doing good quality work in the lab.

4.    Have Clear Communication:

Clearly describe the lab safety attire, dress code, and lab decorum expectations for experiments, lab meetings, and conferences. Explain your expectations to your students about the number of papers you want them to read each week, how many hours they should be in lab each week, and how often they should give you an update. Ask the student to email you weekly or bi-weekly with updates on their progress, if they cannot attend regular lab meetings. Communicate to the students which experiments are okay to be chatting during – for instance, working on a new experimental set up or behavioural apparatus – and which experiments require focus without personal chatting. Make sure the undergrads do not feel that your frustration during troubleshooting is because of them. Oftentimes, experiments do not work, so we need to make them aware of how much of science is troubleshooting, and that is the nature of research.

Let the undergrads know, from the very beginning, that they need to ask you 3-4 weeks in advance for letters of recommendation. If they just learned about the opportunity several days ago and need a quick turnaround, they need to know that you might not be able to generate a letter for them with this short amount of time. This also teaches them to be more responsible with their time and to value yours.

Have the postdocs or grad students in the lab keep notes on each undergrad’s strengths, so that the letters of recommendation can be personalized. Have these direct student mentors (postdocs or grad students) remind the undergrads that they are keeping the PI updated on these things, which helps remind the undergrads that the lab is keeping the letter of recommendation in mind. When the undergrads feel that their future careers are important to the lab, then they are more likely to make the lab a priority in their minds as well.

5.    Constructive Criticism:

Remember when you first started out in a lab? You probably were not as amazing as you are now. Someone took the time to discuss with you your strengths and weaknesses, and helped you get better in the areas that required it. Now it is your turn to be that person to a student.

When telling students their weaknesses, tell them that for any future jobs they will have to state their strengths/weaknesses in the job interview. Have them practice this with you during non-active lab periods, like walking to a seminar or another lab room, or during a weekly meeting. Then, expand on their strengths with them, and point out other weaknesses that they can improve upon. Definitely make note of any self-criticism that they may have, that are not actual weaknesses, and point out to them that it is not actually a weakness.

Frequently, remind the students of things they do well, so that when you need to give constructive criticism, they accept it easier. Thank them when they have good communication with you and respond to all of your emails.

6.    Mentor Students for Their Career Progression:

Offer to review students’ resumes, CV’s, and LinkedIn profiles with them. Providing valuable feedback to them in these areas will be great help for their career progression, and some students will welcome this type of mentorship. The feedback on CV’s, resumes, and LinkedIn profiles can be given directly by grad students or postdocs, so it does not necessarily have to take up the PI’s time. This provides more mentoring experience for the grad students and postdocs.

While walking with the undergrads to different lab rooms, or to a seminar, ask them about their courses they are taking this quarter/semester. Students love to be able to talk about what they are working on, or their career goals. It helps remind them that you are invested in their career progression. Check with them periodically to see if they have any career advice questions they want to ask you. When students feel that you have a genuine interest in their career progression, they are more likely to have a vested interest in their quality of work in the lab. Remind the students to keep their classes as their number one priority, with the lab as a close second. This helps remind them that the lab is important, but not more important than their coursework.

If the student is very dedicated to the lab, offer to write letters of support for scholarships and summer internships prior to the student’s last year in the lab. Remind the students to always keep track of their volunteering, because giving back to the community is important, and they will be asked about it when applying for scholarships, internships, and future positions.

7.    Remind Students of the Mutual Learning:

Learning goes both ways. There are still things that we can learn from our undergrads. For instance, they might know about new and useful software features, research networking sites, or applications on smart phones that can help during experiments. Let your students know that they should share these things with you, which helps them feel that they have a voice in the lab and that they are part of the team. This results in the students becoming more involved during lab meetings, experiments, troubleshooting, and journal clubs.


Undergraduate students are often overlooked. But it is our responsibility as more established scientists to help them navigate the beginnings of research. It is important to show mutual respect to your undergrads, as well as provide steady mentorship and help with their career progression. This keeps them motivated and invested in doing good quality work in the lab, and also helps them enjoy the lab more.

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