Texas Tech University

Mentoring Undergraduate Assistants is Valuable Career Training for Graduate Students


A week or so ago, I was informed that a student I mentored in the lab had been accepted to medical school. She is an exceptional student and even though we have not conducted research together in a few years, I have continued to mentor her as our careers have moved in different directions.

Unlike me, she is not a first-generation college student. However, like me, she lacked the family support and "inside information" that is provided by families with generations of advanced education. So, that is what I provided during our mentoring relationship. We would meet for lunch or dinner once or twice a month and she would share her challenges and successes, and I provided guidance where I had information and encouragement when I had none. I explained how to contact faculty to request opportunities for research experience, told her the importance of shadowing physicians if she planned to apply for medical school, and calmed her down when she took the MCAT too early (before completing critical coursework in the hard sciences). On occasion, I put her in touch with faculty that could provide her with additional guidance as she progressed toward her med school application and acceptance. Mostly, I served as her cheering section as she worked through her challenges.

That student's success inspired me to spend a bit of time talking about mentorship this month because surprisingly, it has been the aspect of my career that I most value. I've previously written about the importance of carefully choosing mentors, but it is just as valuable for students to learn to be an effective mentor.

Unfortunately, I often have had graduate students fail to realize that they are currently mentoring undergrads or junior graduate students. I've had grad students inform me that they don't want to work with undergrads because they believe undergrads do not know anything. I have even encountered faculty that did not want to be bothered with undergrad assistants because they say by the time you get them trained, they leave.

The value of incorporating undergrad assistants into your research team is not merely the value of cheap labor in the lab. Undergrad assistants, especially talented students, keep everyone in the laboratory on task and learning. To teach or verbalize material with which you are familiar forces you to think about the material at a deeper level. Teaching creates a more intimate understanding of your discipline. Mentoring students is a very personal level of teaching. Students that you mentor in the lab develop a comfortable relationship with members of the team, and once they are comfortable with personnel, they will grill them for information about their work. Interacting with students at this level will force everyone in the lab to identify the holes in their knowledge and sometimes student questions/comments reveal intellectual associations and ideas that you may not have previously realized yourself. Furthermore, sometimes the failures of undergrad assistants reveal flaws in your procedural systems and/or enable you to standardize inconsistencies in procedure that naturally occur between members of your team. The value of being a teaching lab is that the mentoring interactions enhance the knowledge base of the entire research team and enhances the efficacy of the research.

Supervising undergrads and junior graduate students also provides grad students with valuable experience in managing personnel. Whether students plan on having a career in academia or industry, productivity and career advancement will be dependent on their ability to manage people. Everyone thinks it is great to be the boss until they actually have to hand out work, provide direction, correct unwanted behavior, provide critical feedback on work performance and worst of all, be responsible for mistakes made by their research team. It is only then that graduate students realize how difficult it is to manage people. Early experience of mentoring and managing undergraduate assistants provides grad students with practice on motivating and supervising a team. It is time consuming and requires a great deal of energy, especially when working with new students. Failing to understand what is involved in supervising a team can have career-damaging effects if one's first management experiences are encountered after one attains that first tenure track faculty position. Productivity and research efficacy can be stalled or damaged due to a lack of experience with managing a research team. I encourage every graduate student to take the opportunity to learn how to supervise and manage undergraduate students; the experience is very valuable.

For anyone looking for additional direction on putting together and managing your research team, "Making the Right Moves: A practical guide for Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty" is a helpful publication made available by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute that can be downloaded for free from their website.

Supervising and training undergrads also contributes accountability for the research team and thus enhances the integrity of the research. Many eyes make for honest work. Talented undergrads can provide that oversight. In their thirst to learn, they watch your every move and often detect (and will question) inconsistencies in procedure. This type of oversight can improve the precision of your work when you are under pressure to meet a deadline and thus there is a temptation to "cut corners" to save a bit of time. The undergrads do not point out your inconsistencies to "catch you." Rather, they will seek clarification and/or reasons for the change in procedure so that they know when to follow different procedures. However, their curiosity will keep you on task in the moment rather than succumbing to the pressure to meet deadlines at all cost. The presence of talented undergrads will keep the team honest.

There is also the personal value that you have helped someone figure out their path in life and watch them work toward their goals. I cannot express how valuable that contribution is to my general sense of accomplishment and well-being. It is why I have so much respect for teachers. I take great pride that every undergraduate student that worked in our lab moved on to get an advanced degree. But more so, I take great pride that only one student pursued a research career related to our research program. I like to think that working in our lab taught them how to pursue their own interests and contributed to their career.

In addition, they also made their first network connections because they all continued to stay in touch via social media as their careers have taken them to various parts of the country and diverse disciplines. I have even contacted some of them to provide career guidance/information for younger students that are thinking about a similar career path, and they have embraced the opportunity to mentor others. It is a healthy cycle to propagate.

Therefore, giving undergrads an opportunity to work in the lab enhances the career development of the undergrads and provides the research team the opportunity to enhance their own education through teaching and mentoring. It also provides your research team with those first opportunities to learn to manage research personnel, a critical skill. However, like all benefits, mentoring undergrads can have challenges.

Undergrads will make mistakes, sometimes costly or dangerous mistakes. Make sure that the research team and the undergrads are aware of what undergrads are and are not allowed to do. If, as a grad student mentor, you are unsure of the undergrads' knowledge or ability, make sure to check with your research adviser before giving undergrad assistants access to expensive or dangerous equipment or supplies. Make sure that the student is fully aware of the costs and/or dangers, and interact with them enough to ensure they are sufficiently mature to handle the responsibility before they are permitted access to expensive research equipment. Keep in mind that a lot of the "fun" research equipment is costly and/or dangerous. Similar to us, students will be attracted to those projects. I remember a very intelligent and very immature high school student that did a rotation in our lab when I was a graduate student. He did not work with me, but rather worked with our postdoc at the time. The student was sufficiently immature that he thought that everyone's focus should be on him at all times, and he largely disrupted everyone's work during his time with our lab. The postdoc did not do a great job of managing him (although admittedly he was difficult), and tried to dump him on anyone that would not refuse. After a few weeks of this disruption, it was finally decided that the student was not equipped to be in the lab due to immaturity, and he was told that he was no longer welcome. As a final realization that the student had not been ready to be in a lab environment, after his departure we found a box of lab and computer equipment under his workstation that was largely disassembled or destroyed. We can only guess that due to his immaturity, he thought this destructive behavior was acceptable when he was left without any supervision or attention. The destroyed equipment and disrupted work environment was a costly reminder of the need for supervision of new students.

There are students that will fail to become productive members of your team. Undergrad assistants are "trying on" research careers so that they can figure out where they fit in the academic world. As such, some students will fit into your team like magic and others will rapidly lose interest or lack basic skills that are necessary to excel in your discipline. If you notice that a student under your supervision is not being very productive, work with them to figure out why. They may not be dedicated to the lab or they may not be interested in the research. Neither of these are character flaws, but they are good reasons for the student to look for a research experience that will better suit their interests. If they lack the skills, try to provide them with training, but if it is clear that they lack the ability to contribute, even with additional training, they will be better served to find a better fit. I remember our lab technician telling me about trying to teach a student a rodent surgical procedure, but the student had shaky hands. The procedure was delicate and needed a stable hand and no matter how hard she tried to calm the student, his hands were just too unstable to effectively conduct the surgery. The student's shaking hands were not a character flaw, but demonstrated that the student may not be a good match for the lab.

New, talented undergrad assistants require a great deal of supervision and energy when they first start in the lab. Every talented undergraduate student that stayed with the lab for a couple years (or more) grilled me with tons of questions when they first started. They wanted to learn how to perfectly conduct every procedure in the lab, and they wanted all that skill and knowledge immediately. Part of their enthusiasm is to please their faculty and graduate student mentors, but part of that enthusiasm is the inherent curiosity and need to produce that is inherent to over achievers. When I first started supervising students, I found this exhausting. Later, I realized that I had the power to slow them down and teach them to focus on the current task. I allocated a period of time for questions and conversation, and then I would lay out their task for the day in a clearly written step-by-step procedure. I learned to value this inherent enthusiasm and curiosity because it was a sign that they would probably stay with the lab for a while and thus my efforts would be well spent on a productive long-term member of the team. In addition, there are a few to whom I may be turning to for a job someday. I did encounter students that were more talented than myself, and their careers will undoubtedly outshine my own. From a self-serving perspective, these are not bad networking connections to maintain.

Sometimes graduate students are too busy to train new undergrads. There are those times in graduate school that the grad student needs to be completely self-absorbed. When they are facing qualifying exams or are all but defended and trying to finish that dissertation, the grad student's focus is appropriately all about their own career. This may not be a good time for them to be training or supervising a new undergrad assistant. When I was a junior graduate student, I spent a great deal of time training new undergrads and then when the students started to reveal talent for our lab procedures, they would be stolen by senior members of the team. I would then, again, face training a new group of undergrads. It became my role to provide initial training to undergrads. However, when I became that senior student and was facing qualifying exams and writing my dissertation, I was no longer required to train the new undergrads. Like most senior grad students, I had disappeared into self-absorption that would enable me to finish my degree requirements. Appropriately, I was allowed to keep my team and others had to learn (the hard way) how to train their own personnel. Keep the personal responsibilities of team members in mind when assigning them the task of supervising new students and if you are a senior grad student, assert your need for self-absorption. It is better to not train an undergrad assistant than to provide poor training.

Beware of protocol shift as your team grows and evolves. Just like the game of "telephone" that we played as children, each time your research protocol evolves through another generation of students (PI to postdoc, postdoc to grad student, grad student to undergrad, etc.) pieces go missing and the protocol shifts and evolves. It is critical that senior members of the team constantly assess protocol with team members to ensure that your procedures remain consistent. Protocol shift is not necessarily a result of any wrongdoing by any member of your team. It can be a series of mistakes or momentary bad training that causes this evolution. Sometimes purposeful changes were made to improve the lab procedures and they need to be shared with the team and included in your published methods. Periodically, quiz your team on the procedural steps, or have them write out those steps in their lab notebook for your review. You will be surprised by the many minor changes or omissions that occur when you do not review procedures with your team. And, if you quiz everyone and they all report accurate protocol, provide pizza for lunch or another reward for their hard work!

I never expected when I started my career that I would take so much pride in the successes of students I have mentored over the years. Yes, supervising inexperienced undergrads is time consuming and sometimes very difficult, but fostering these mentoring relationships is an investment in the quality of work produced by any research team, as well as an investment in the future of your discipline. Graduate students need to take advantage of the opportunities to mentor undergraduate students so that they can develop their communication and management skills. These skills are critical for their future productivity and career advancement.

Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.