Mentoring Undergraduate Students in Research and Creative Work
Thank you for welcoming an undergraduate student into research or independent creative work. Several faculty members have contributed the following comments designed to be helpful to mentors of undergraduates in a variety of disciplines and settings including laboratory research, data collection and analysis, policy research, and creative works. Students may volunteer, be paid, earn credits, or receive a combination of rewards.
Steps to take:
Define the Project
What is the expected product at the end of the semester or other work period? What methods will be applied? Will the student need instruction in these methods? Try to define a project where the student can reasonably expect to achieve the stated goals.
Confirm that the student has the necessary Institutional Review Board (IRB) or Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) certification. Students cannot be listed as the Principal Investigator (PI) for IRB or IACUC purposes; therefore, you will likely be the PI. As the PI, you are responsible for mentoring the student during the research project, adhering to the approved protocol, and reporting changes to the protocol or adverse events, even when these occur in the work done by the student.
Make Your Expectations Clear
Be explicit about your expectations regarding time, results, and methods of communication. What days and times (or hours per week) is the student to work on this project? How much time will be on-site in a studio, laboratory, office, or other campus workspace and how much at another location such as a library, dorm room, community site? Is the student committing for a summer, semester, or full academic year? What training and start-up instruction will the student receive? What is the scope of the student’s responsibility (to complete the project, to complete sections and check in with you, to carry out specific tasks under your direction)? Is the student working directly with you, primarily alone, or with other students?
Include the Student
Provide a formal introduction to others in the studio, laboratory, department, or project group. This will allow the student to confidently approach the appropriate person with questions or contributions. In some departments, student researchers are invited to attend the departmental journal club or other professional discussions.
Prepare for Glitches
Plan a timeline that allows for delays and setbacks. When a student is working independently on a project of his or her own design, an occasional close review by the mentor can be valuable, revealing the need for advice, instruction, or intervention.
Will the student be working with important equipment, data, cell lines, or files? Could a student mistake cause serious problems with the project or with expensive equipment? Think about what could go wrong and where to check on the student’s work to protect you both from disaster. Even well into the project, spot checks on technique and progress can identify misunderstandings or errors of technique that the student has developed over time.
With whom will the student be communicating most with you, a graduate student, a staff person? Should the student check in daily or only periodically? Do you prefer to hear from the student via e-mail, an unannounced knock on your door, a hallway chat, or a formal appointment? What is the student’s preferred method of communication? Which questions and concerns should be brought to you and which should go to a graduate student or others on the team? Will you provide the student with a formal evaluation of his or her work?
Speak explicitly about intellectual property rights before the work begins. If something publishable comes from this work, what credit should the student and mentor each expect? Do any of the data, results, or analysis from this work belong to the student? If you are to own the results of the student’s work, structure the work such that you have access to all appropriate files, data sets, or research notebooks from the beginning. If the work is of a proprietary nature, make sure your student understands with whom the research can and cannot be discussed.
Support Professional Development by the Student
As appropriate, encourage the student to present his or her work to other students, the department, a campus conference, or an off-campus audience. Attend the student’s presentations to provide support and constructive feedback. Broader career mentoring is one of the most valuable aspects of the student research experience. Help the student to understand and consider related career paths. Clarify to the student your willingness to provide recommendations along with the process and timeline for such requests.
Clarify your own Commitment
What responsibilities do you have in mentoring this student? What time and support will the student need from you? Are there departmental resources available to help you? If you are on the tenure track, will this contribute to, or divert from, your progress?
When Research is Credit Bearing
Making the project a graded independent study can help keep the student on track when classes and other commitments compete for his or her time. Discuss with your student how he or she will be graded and awarded the credit. Clarify the number of credits that can be awarded and the related time commitment. If you require documentation of the student’s work or a final report, make those expectations clear.
Thank you to the many UMBC faculty and staff members who contributed to this summary, including Mariajose Castellanos, Amy Froide, Matthias Gobbert, Vin Grabil, Andrea Kalfoglou, Janet McGlynn, Roy Rada, Paul Smith, and Tim Sparklin.
For more information about campus-wide undergraduate research programs contact April L. Householder, Ph.D., Director of Undergraduate Research and Nationally Competitive Scholarships, 5-5754.