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7 Steps to Mentoring Undergraduate Students
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Seven Steps to Successful Summer Student Supervising

As finals wrap up in colleges everywhere, graduate students and postdocs across the country can now be overheard exclaiming, “this summer’s going to be so awesome!  I’m going to have an undergraduate student working with me and with four hands instead of two, this project is going to take off!”  Oh, it’s going to take off – in what direction is the real question…

While many undergraduate students perform research year-round, summers are a time when the part-time student suddenly becomes a full-time employee.  More importantly, since most summer students are assigned to work with a specific graduate student or postdoc, they’re now your full-time employee.

Working with an undergraduate researcher is a very exciting prospect and they can be a tremendous help.  However, after the fantasies of having your own private dish-washer, buffer-maker and house-cleaner fade away, reality sets in: this is going to be a lot of work.  Luckily, a few important steps can help us get the most out of the experience.

1. Set your expectations appropriately.

I once had a PI tell me “don’t think that because you have a technician that you can leave early or take long lunches.”  First of all, the idea never occurred to me (ahem-).  Second of all, if I truly believed that a new technician was going to pick up my project seamlessly, I would have been delusional.

Now would be a good time to remember that feeling we had when we first started working in the lab.  Words like scared, overwhelmed and excited all come to mind. Be ready to spend a lot of time teaching them how to do everything.  That’s OK.  A poorly-trained student will end up slowing progress, and we’re pretty sure “looking for energetic, intelligent student capable of dramatically slowing progress on an exciting research project” wasn’t in the job description…

Expecting our student to be as competent as us will only leave us disappointed and frustrated.  Not good for us.  Not good for the student.

2. Make your expectations of them clear

How can we expect undergrads to do a good job, when they don’t even know what we want?  Some basic guidelines will help define the relationship and make it much smoother sailing.  Things like when to arrive, how to keep a notebook and what you expect them to be doing while you’re teaching them something are all good places to start.

3. Don’t be the next “Say No to Drugs” ad

It’s a TV classic- the parents bust into the kids room to find them in possession of some illegal drugs.  The parents stern question, “Where did you get this?!” is followed immediately by the kid shouting, “I LEARNED IT FROM WATHCING YOU, DAD!”  Ooooooh, busted.

Whether you give your undergrad illegal drugs is not the point.  Actually, while we’re on it- don’t give your undergrad illegal drugs.

The real point is that we are now a scientific role model, like it or not.  Therefore, if we tell them to write everything in a notebook, we should be writing everything in a notebook.  If we ask them to keep their bench clean, we should be keeping our bench clean.  And a two-hour Minesweeper or Facebook session is not going to inspire your undergraduate.

A two-hour BenchFly session, however…

4. Breathe in, Breathe out. Wax on, Wax off.

They’re going to mess up.  A lot.  Therefore, we shouldn’t let the new undergrad try to finish that critical experiment we’ve been running for six months.  If an experiment involves precious materials or time-sensitive work, take the reigns. Assume the worst, be delighted by the best.  We need to be realistic in the work we give them – if they mess up a critical experiment, it’s on us, not them.

5. Dish out some high-fives

Most of an undergrad’s day will be spent nervously trying to learn something while we stand over their shoulder correcting them at every step.  While the close oversight is a necessary part of the training, don’t forget to take time to tell them what they’re doing well.  At the end of the day a “Hey, thanks for all of the hard work today- you really mastered that assay and I know it’s not easy!” can make a huge difference in the way they see us and the lab.

6. Let them drive the car

Colonel Frank Slade (Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman) wouldn’t settle for simply riding in a Ferrari, he had to drive it.  And he was blind.  Giving students the opportunity to think for themselves helps them see why science is so fun.  Many of us are in a position to give undergrads a small project of their own.  Granted, we’re talking very small.  But maybe they have an idea for a specific mutation to make, or for a new reaction to setup.  The idea doesn’t have to be Nobel-worthy, just something that may ultimately fit in to our own story at some point.  Letting them hit the gas on the open road once in a while will give them the thrill of what doing real science is all about.  Just remember to grab the wheel before they jump the curb- there will be plenty of time for them to crash in grad school…

7. Don’t be the Lenny to their bunny

As mentors to undergraduate students, it’s vital that we realize the influential role we play in their career development and that it’s a responsibility we shouldn’t take lightly.  Ask anybody, in any profession, why they became what they did and more than likely they’ll say “I had a great teacher really turned me on to it.”  We’re not saying their future is entirely in your hands, but we are saying there’s an opportunity to make a real impact.  Just make sure its the positive kind of impact, not the Chevy Nova kind of impact.

So best of luck with your summer undergraduate and hopefully you’ll both find it a fantastic experience!


Have any other tips for managing summer undergraduates?



3 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. @DoctorZen

    wrote on May 19, 2010 at 8:43 am

    My approach is to treat a project as a partnership. It doesn't matter if the person I'm working with is a first time student or a more senior colleague. I try to "pull rank" as little as possible.

    The important part of the phrase "beginning scientist" is still "scientist."

  2. alan@benchfly

    wrote on May 20, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    I completely agree- how you treat a student (like a colleague or like a mindless pair of hands) will determine which role they grow into. Pulling rank may be necessary on occasion, but those should be few and far between.

  3. Science Career Development Resources | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on December 2, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    […] 7 Steps to Successful Summer Student Supervising – lucky enough to have some undergraduates helping out in the lab? Make the most of them by following a few simple steps […]

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