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Mentoring Undergrads

The following situation might be familiar to you: your PI summons you to his/her office and asks if you are interested in mentoring an undergrad as part of the undergraduate research program. At this point, you have two obvious options: either decline your PI proposal (and there are PIs who have a hard time accepting the word “No!”) or accepting.  There are several reasons why we would not want to take mentorship over an undergrad project:

Additional responsibility

Let’s face it: graduate school is a heavy commitment without committing to another person, let alone a non-professional person who stares with awe at a magnetic stirrer mixing sodium chloride in a lab beaker.  You are the official mentor, and whether he/she turns out good or bad, it will fall on your tiresome shoulders.

Curriculum duties. Part of the undergrad project is to present his/her work to an audience, whether it’s for a poster session or a short presentation.  This requires you to go over his/her abstracts/poster/presentation and make the all-too-known cycle of textual refinement as already takes place between you and your PI.  Another time consuming commitment.

Resource demanding. From your precious time to the tips on the pipette, an undergrad taking their first steps in the lab is a resource-demanding species.

Patience demanding. Depending on the quality of the undergrad and the complexity of methods employed in the lab, you might need more patience in explaining and training the undergrad.

However, there are several good reasons why you should take the mentorship with both hands and turn a challenge into an opportunity:

Mentorship training

Whether you plan on a brilliant career in the most prestigious university, or a job in the biotech arena – mentorship and team-leading capabilities are a must!  Graduate school is a place where you can learn, develop and fine-tune the skills required in leading a team of people in pursuit of a target or aim.  But don’t forget – unlike graduate school, in the real world most of the time you don’t have a second chance, and supervisory skills are seen as a real plus in a job interview.

Working power. You just can’t beat the math: two are better than one.  This is of course true in the case where the undergrad has decent learning curve capabilities and manages to master to some extent the working technique required to perform and accomplish the objectives.  With four hands working on the project, you will advance your project faster and in the current crowded scientific arena, this can make the difference between publishing first or second.

Securing future working power. This is more for your PI’s benefit than your own.  In addition, if the undergrad enjoys the lab dynamics and laboratory work it will serve the PI as marketing, to attract additional undergrads in the future and even potential graduate students.  There is, of course, a benefit for you as a graduate student: if the undergrad integrates into the lab as a graduate student and continues a different angle of your work, it can serve both of you and can develop a richer and fuller body of work – the result of which is publication in a higher-ranking journal.

Looking at the above list of cons and pros, you can now make a logical decision whether or not you are fit to mentor a young student taking their first steps in the (real) science world.  I would like to stress that even if you feel it’s not up to you, I’d encourage you to give it a try and see in practice if it’s a benefit or a hindrance.  Like many aspects of empirical science and life itself, you’ll never know unless you try the experiment.

Accepting the challenge

Assuming you’ve decided to instruct an undergrad, there are several factors that should be taken into account and guidelines that should be applied:

Interview. An important step that serves three purposes:

1) Allows an initial personal acquaintance between you as a mentor and the student as a trainee

2) Gives an appreciation of the student’s professional knowledge and laboratory practice (if it exists) so you can devise an appropriate project that will fit the capabilities of the student

3) Allows you to set realistic expectations for (a) how much time the student can allocate to the project, (b) what your expectations of him/her will be as a trainee and (c) what the student’s expectation will be of you as a mentor, and the project.  Obviously, the interview should take place before any decision making so if it’s practicable it’s recommended that the potential student be interviewed by all lab members and only then be assigned to a specific mentor and a project.

Project assignment. Project selection can have a tremendous effect on the outcome success of the project, the self-esteem of the undergraduate and the overall impression of the undergrad’s capabilities.  The chosen project or aim should not be too easy or short (“Cloning gene X into plasmid Y”) nor should it be too demanding, time and technical wise (“Generating knock-out mice of gene X”).  The scope of the project should relate to the time the undergrad can allocate.  The mentor and the trainee should coordinate times that will suit both, while making an effort to maintain continuous stretches of work periods so the student will not have to re-focus on the assignment and experimentation techniques after long periods away from the lab.

“Boot camp” period. This period should be devoted to basic laboratory technique introduction (pipetting, titrations, weighing ingredients etc.), adequate experimental documentation and literature overview for the project’s theme and aim.  It’s important not to throw the undergrad into deep water at this stage so that he/she can gradually build their self-esteem and confidence while progressing from simple to complex actions and protocols.  This period is an imperative step in the development of good/correct laboratory practice.

Developing independent work. First up, the mentor should conduct complex experimentation with the undergraduate involved in the process as well, partly “wetting” his/her hands, and mostly following the actions performed by the mentor.  This is the place where the mentor should highlight the pitfalls of the different techniques and highlight the “know-hows” that can make the difference between a successful experiment and a failed one.  Gradually the mentor should encourage the student to work independently, even at the risk of failure or loss of resources.  Saying that, it’s important to keep track of the trainee’s actions, and especially his/her lab notebook, as this piece of paper is the ultimate evidence of any scientific work.

Finalizing the project. Toward the end of the project, the trainee will be required to prepare a poster and/or presentation.  In most cases, undergrads will need to learn how to refine and master professional level presentation techniques (preparing slides and presenting them in front of a professional audience).  This is the place where the mentor can aid and instruct on the critical points when making posters and presentations – this should not be underestimated.

To sum up, even though mentoring an undergraduate project can be time consuming and demanding, the outcomes of such an effort will be well worth it, both for the mentor and for the trainee.  Don’t forget: the most successful scientists took their first steps in their careers as undergraduate students learning the art of science making.

Do you have any experience with mentoring undergrads?  Have you any comments to make as the undergrad trainee? Perhaps you’ve had some interesting stories to tell about such an experience?  Please feel free to comment and share.

4 Comments

  1. Chen Guttman on February 3, 2011 at 4:15 am

    it’s true that a PI will suppose that you won’t decline the offer. But this is because the chain of learning must be like this. It’s plain that a PI can’t spend his/her time training undergrads, right? This responsibility must be assigned to a member of the lab which is responsible, dedicated, clean, and focused – because teaching uses up lab time, so the PI does want the effort to pay and the undergrad to become a PhD student eventually.
    So, getting the assignment to mentor an undergrad means that your PI really, really appreciates you, and wants that undergrad to “grow up” just like you.


    I totally agree with you, Robert. No one really expects PIs to do so, even though my PI is always happy to be engaged in the process of helping and advising, especially in cases the guiding graduate student is away from the lab. 
    Even so, there are many gradudates that shy away from this as much as they can and this article is mainly aimed at those individuals…

    I admit that at the time, I found mentoring undergrads to be a bit of a hassle and distraction while I was a grad student. But I nonetheless did a LOT (not necessarily out of my own volition) and eventually it became quasi-enjoyable. 

    I should add, to provide a bit of perspective, that my funding was entirely contingent upon being a teaching assistant every single fall and winter (or spring, depending how your university calls it) semester- effectively 2/3 of the year where I was dealing with countless undergraduates in lab courses on top of mentoring undergrads in my research lab.
    Then, for my postdoc, I went to an all-postdoc lab. There were 15 postdocs including myself, 0 grad students, and 0 undergrads. I actually found myself deeply missing the interaction I had being able to mentor younger students, and volunteered as an alumni mentor for my two alma mater.
    Now, I’d be thrilled to get a professorship (and ideally a lab to go with it) at a university where the focus is on undergrads, preferably along with master’s students, and if I’m really lucky, maybe some Ph.D. students too. But definitely more emphasis on the ability to mentor students- I don’t think I’d be upset if a postdoc never came through my lab…
    Well, I know what you mean – indeed, undergrads can lower the level of “seriousness” of the job, and due to the fact that in many cases, they are very enthusiastic due to the novelty of working in a research lab. But one thing for sure, when you did your post doc you must have progressed in research 2 to 3 times more faster, I guess…

    our lab believes that undergrad students are just cheap post docs, and 
    should not requiring training after having gained the necessary skills 
    in their previous studies.  They believe ph.d students are the future of
    research to maintain an economically viable lab.
    I hear the same from my colleagues as well, which I think is quite sad 
    and ultimately damaging for the development and quality of the next 
    generation of scientists.
      

    This is truly sad. I just can’t understand how anyone can think of an undergrad as a cheap post doc? Moreover, it’s better to use one post doc than 3 undergrad – his speed, proficiency and focus is much much better in most cases (and there are extreme cases in which a post doc can be quite… unproductive).

    Thanks for commenting,
    Chen

  2. micronaut on February 1, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    our lab believes that undergrad students are just cheap post docs, and
    should not requiring training after having gained the necessary skills
    in their previous studies.  They believe ph.d students are the future of
    research to maintain an economically viable lab.

     I hear the same from my colleagues as well, which I think is quite sad
    and ultimately damaging for the development and quality of the next
    generation of scientists. 

  3. Christopher Dieni on February 1, 2011 at 3:56 am

    I admit that at the time, I found mentoring undergrads to be a bit of a hassle and distraction while I was a grad student. But I nonetheless did a LOT (not necessarily out of my own volition) and eventually it became quasi-enjoyable. 

    I should add, to provide a bit of perspective, that my funding was entirely contingent upon being a teaching assistant every single fall and winter (or spring, depending how your university calls it) semester- effectively 2/3 of the year where I was dealing with countless undergraduates in lab courses on top of mentoring undergrads in my research lab.
    Then, for my postdoc, I went to an all-postdoc lab. There were 15 postdocs including myself, 0 grad students, and 0 undergrads. I actually found myself deeply missing the interaction I had being able to mentor younger students, and volunteered as an alumni mentor for my two alma mater.
    Now, I’d be thrilled to get a professorship (and ideally a lab to go with it) at a university where the focus is on undergrads, preferably along with master’s students, and if I’m really lucky, maybe some Ph.D. students too. But definitely more emphasis on the ability to mentor students- I don’t think I’d be upset if a postdoc never came through my lab…
  4. Roberto on January 31, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    It’s true that a PI will suppose that you won’t decline the offer. But this is because the chain of learning must be like this. It’s plain that a PI can’t spend his/her time training undergrads, right? This responsibility must be assigned to a member of the lab which is responsible, dedicated, clean, and focused – because teaching uses up lab time, so the PI does want the effort to pay and the undergrad to become a PhD student eventually.
    So, getting the assignment to mentor an undergrad means that your PI really, really appreciates you, and wants that undergrad to “grow up” just like you.

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