Are you Mentoring an Undergrad? Start Here

Spring is here! The weather’s finally nice, the plants are pollen-ing up the place, and some labs will double in size with the arrival of new summer students. In past years, I have had the chance to mentor some undergrads, and I found it to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my grad school experience.

After thinking back on my own first days in the lab as an undergrad, and reflecting on what worked well (or didn’t work so well) when I was a new mentor, I have come up with the following mentorship strategy. As with any advice lists found on the Internet, your mileage may vary.

1) BEFORE the student joins the lab

  • Prepare a SELF-CONTAINED PROJECT. Think about your own PhD work: is there a part of it that can be done in parallel to the rest of your work? What specific hypothesis would it test? What are the aims of this sub-project, what methods will this new student need to learn? Ideally, this summer project is not something upstream of your own work – research always takes longer than expected (especially with a new lab member), and you don’t want to be impatiently waiting for the summer student’s results before you can move on with your own experience.
    • What health & safety training sessions will they need to complete?
    • I like to structure these projects so that the new students start with safer techniques and gradually increase risk/needed technical skills. For example, I might structure a project so that they start with DNA work, then move to on cell work, and finally start virus work once I’m sure they can do experiments safely and well
    • If you know anything about this new student’s background, how does the project fit within their previous or future coursework? How does it fit with their research or career interests (if they have any yet)?
  • Prepare a READING LIST: papers and protocols that will give them context so that they can understand what they’re working on. Keep it short: 6 papers is enough to start!
    • I like to include 1-2 reviews for the big question they’re working on – the virus, disease, or cellular pathway they’ll be working on
    • Include the paper(s) that justify the rationale for their specific project (this can be a draft of your own paper, or a committee meeting progress report)
    • Add the detailed protocols of the techniques they’ll need to learn (e.g. the instructions that come with the site-directed mutagenesis kit, with the maxiprep kit)

2) EARLY in supervision

  • For the first couple of weeks in the lab, your time will be spent training the new student. It’s very hard (perhaps impossible) to do that well and to multitask experiments, so just accept that you’ll have a dip in productivity.
  • On their first day, give a short and to-the-point PRESENTATION of your own project, and explain how their project fits with yours. Be ready to explain this many times over the next few weeks – you’re giving a lot of information at once, it will take time to sink in!
  • Give them their reading list, and make sure they have some time during the work day to read.
  • COMMUNICATE EXPECTATIONS clearly (for example, I might say “I’m in the lab from 9 to 5:30. I might stay later on some evenings, but I don’t expect you to be staying later than 5”).
    • Ask when they have training sessions or at what time they need to leave, and plan their training time so that they can still meet their other commitments.
  • On their first day, get them started with one lab technique – something simple, like setting up a restriction enzyme digestion or splitting cells. Teach new techniques one at a time
    • When teaching techniques, I like to take a “see it, do it, do it on your own” approach:
      1. Show them how the technique is done – and have them write their own notes as they watch you
      2. Have them practice the technique while you’re supervising closely and giving guidance
      3. Have them demonstrate to you that they know how to do the technique, giving no guidance
      4. Once they’re comfortable doing it on their own, give them space but stay available in case they have any questions
  • Instill good lab habits by MODELLING good lab behaviour, but also by explicitly telling them what your lab’s NORMS are. By “norms”, I mean things like:
    • Clean up after yourself
    • Take care of yourself – take breaks and have lunch
      • About lunch: if your lab has lunch as a group, invite the undergrads along! But if you normally use lunch as your own quiet time, don’t feel obligated to always be “on”. Just let your mentee know when you’ll be back from lunch, and how they can reach you should the need arise
    • Work regular hours and leave when you’re done
    • Update your lab notebook every day
      • If your lab uses electronic notebooks, make sure that yours is visible to your undergrad and that theirs is shared/visible to you and your PI
        • “How to organize a lab notebook” could be a whole other blog post
    • Mistakes happen. Own up and clean up.

3) DURING the entire experience

  • Communicate!!!
    • With your MENTEE: talk about results, troubleshoot issues as they come up, let them know when you aren’t available or how they can reach you. Congratulate them on what they do well!
    • With OTHER RESEARCHERS: if there’s a lull in the project or you have a data analysis day and your undergrad has some free time, can they shadow someone else to learn a new technique?
    • With your PI: they will want to know how the new student is doing – periodically let them know.
      • If there’s ever a situation where you don’t know what to do next (the project isn’t panning out, there’s a conflict or supervisory issue that comes up), your PI is an experience researcher AND supervisor, they might have advice.
      • Definitely let them know when undergrads are doing great; after all, your PI is the one who will write letters of recommendation for them.
  • Be (reasonably) AVAILABLE and REACHABLE
    • During work hours, try to be in the lab or student office so that your mentee can find you and ask any questions that come up. Make it clear that if they can’t find you quickly, they can text you
    • That said, boundaries between work and the rest of your life are super important. Most people will naturally respect them, but if your undergrad emails you non-urgent things outside of work hours, don’t feel obligated to answer until the next business day. By modelling good work-life boundaries, you will also be giving your mentee the implicit permission to respect their own.
  • CHECK IN often
    • I don’t recommend micromanaging your student’s time beyond the first week in the lab, but you should have an idea of what your undergrad is doing every day.
      • It’s a way to make sure that they’re not trying to bite off more than they can chew, experiements-wise.
      • Also, as an undergrad I was afraid of bothering the busy grad students, so I often let problems stump me instead of asking for help. By chatting regularly about what they’re doing, you can quickly become aware of problems that are new to your student but that you’ve solved before – and you’ll know to share your advice!
  • A lot of mentoring involves giving small nudges, tailored to your supervisee.
    • Someone with perfectionist tendencies might get immensely frustrated by the daily failures of science. Remind them that research is hard, setbacks are normal, and the data are what they are.
    • Someone who has some slacker tendencies might end up spending time playing games on their phone instead of working. While taking breaks is a good thing, if you realize someone constantly isn’t working in the lab they might be bored and need more stimulation – give them a job making buffers, or show them a new technique.

4) At the END of the summer

  • Make sure you have ACCESS to the work they’ve done during the summer
    • Their lab notebook needs to be up to date and complete
    • Where are the reagents they generated during the summer? (e.g. cell lines, plasmids, experimental samples)
      • Have them clean out their own freezer boxes
      • Keep all important reagents clearly labelled and organized where you can find them again
    • Make sure you have access to their data (e.g.figures, sequencing results), either on a lab server, via Dropbox, or because you have copies in your own data folders
      • This data should be clearly labelled and attributed
    • Your PI will have a copy of any final written report, but it’s good for you to have one as well. You can ask your mentee for a copy directly
    • Acknowledge that this student did work for you! At the end of your presentations, bold their name in your list of colleagues and collaborators and name them directly. Name them in the acknowledgements section of your thesis!
    • If their summer project work directly led to data that makes it into your paper, make them a coauthor.
      • If they made a figure that made it into the final manuscript, you absolutely have to. But I think that you should do so even if they only did the first replicate of an experiment, or if they generated the plasmid or reagent that was used for these experiments. Their work helped you make that paper possible, so you might as well make that recognizable by the rest of the scientific community, too.

If you’re looking for more tips on how to manage people, you may want to take a look at Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty. It’s meant for new faculty members who are starting their own labs, but the chapters on mentoring (chapter 5), time management (ch. 6) and project management (ch. 7) are quite relevant for graduate students.

One big caveat of the advice I’ve listed here is that my perspective is limited to what I know: I’m someone who does wet lab molecular biology. How could you adapt this advice for work in a computational modelling lab? For field work? For archival/literature-based/systematic review work?

I also don’t have any direct experience of undergrad supervision gone awry. Do you know of any resources that are available for when things go wrong? If so, leave a comment below!

Header picture by @sundew_raindew for @GradLife McGill

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