Mentoring Tips for Chemistry
Establishing effective mentoring relationships is important for productivity, retention and persistence in STEM. Each mentoring relationship will vary and it is important to be able to shift your mentoring techniques in response to the needs of the mentoring relationship. See below for strategies on how to facilitate effective mentoring relationships specifically for the mentorship of undergraduate researchers in the chemical sciences.
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Establishing Clear Expectations
Successful research relationships develop most readily when built around reasonable expectations for deliverables. Thus, it is important that clear expectations for both the mentee and the mentor are discussed and agreed upon within the first couple weeks of the project. One method for establishing expectations is by using a mentoring compact, such as the one found here. This document can be used to facilitate a conversation around expectations resulting in mutual agreement by both the mentor and mentee. Items that are helpful to discuss when establishing expectations include:
- What does the mentee expect of their mentor? What does the mentee expect to gain/learn from the research experience? How does undergraduate research support the mentee’s career goals?
- How many hours a week is the mentee expected to work on the project? How many weeks/semesters is the mentee expected to commit to the project?
- Will the mentee volunteer, be paid, or conduct research for course credit? If for course credit, how will the grade at the end of the semester be assessed (through a research report, research presentation, overall performance in the lab throughout the semester, etc.)?
- Be explicit with the mentee regarding the research process—it is very likely that work schedules and project workload will fluctuate through the semester. Discuss how these changes to the schedule will be communicated. How far in advance should the changes be communicated? How might schedules change during breaks, exam times, end of the semester, etc.?
- What level of independence is expected? When should the mentee get help from their mentor, the PI/advisor or another group member?
- What is the best way for the mentee to contact the mentor with questions?
- How should research progress/results be documented and communicated? Should the mentee send the mentor weekly email updates on the progress of the project? What information should be included in these updates?
- How often will the mentee meet with the mentor to discuss research progress? PI/advisor? How should the mentee prepare for these meetings?
- Are mentees expected to attend group meetings? If so, what is the expected level of participation? Are mentees expected/invited to attend group functions?
- What are the safety and ethical standards of the lab? How are these being modeled and communicated with your mentee?
Clearly Defining the Project
Mentors should work with their mentee to design a project that will mutually meet the goals of the mentor, the mentee and the research group. Projects should be intentionally designed to draw on the mentees’ interest and academic career aspirations, as well as the mentors’ expertise and the needs of the research group. Scaffolded projects are very common in undergraduate research and is recommended as a best-practice for mentee development. It is recommended that projects for new undergraduate researchers begin with guided research that transitions to an independent project over time. Guided research may involve shadowing their mentor, completing tasks accompanied by fine grain instruction, reproducing routine syntheses, etc.
- Develop a project that is reasonable in scope, feasible for the allotted time, appropriate for the mentee’s skill and understanding level, and challenges the mentee to actively engage in the iterative scientific process (i.e. develop research questions, conduct experiments/methods, generate data, analyze data, disseminate results, etc.).
- Tip: Keep in mind that beginning mentees often struggle with assessing what they don’t know. Thus, it is helpful to assess your mentee’s beginning skill level and knowledge by having your mentee either complete a relevant task or demonstrate topical/disciplinary knowledge shortly after they start in the lab. Projects should be tailored accordingly to their experience/knowledge level.
- Explain the big picture of the research, the importance of the research to the field, and how the mentee’s project will help to meet the overall goal of the group’s research.
- Tip: Follow up with your mentee shortly after giving any new directions to answer any questions they might have surfaced during their initial processing of the information.
- Provide background reading material, including relevant journal articles, which are central to the research topic.
- Tip: Consider asking the mentee to either write a short summary of the articles and/or arranging a time to discuss the articles with your mentee to assess their understanding of the research literature.
- Make a timeline of milestones that ideally will be reached during the research project.
- Tip: Consider using this timeline to develop an explicit plan on how/when to teach necessary background knowledge and skills that the mentee will need to complete the task at hand. Make sure to talk through the plan with you mentee, including what skills and knowledge they will need to complete each step of the research project.
- Encourage your mentee to communicate their results with the PI/advisor, during group meetings, at conferences, and through publications.
- Tip: Check out the conference travel awards and the list of published research articles by undergraduates maintained by the Chemistry Undergraduate Research Office.
- Create a culture of curiosity where mentees are encouraged to ask questions, explore ideas, develop their independence and confidence, and grow academically, scientifically and professionally.
- Tip: Ask open ended question regarding the processes your mentee uses to collect data, conduct a procedure or analyze results, and listen actively to their responses. Questions such as “Tell me how you determined ….” or “This is interesting. Can you explain the reasoning behind this approach?” will build confidence and independence in your mentee, and will also help with assessing the mentee’s understanding and skill level.
- Acknowledge mentee’s achievements.
- Tip: Helping your mentee to redefine failures, as well as showcasing how you have worked to overcome failures and celebrate successes, helps to build confidence in the mentee’s capabilities as a researcher.
Developing Opportunities for Frequent Communication, Feedback and Career Exploration
Frequent and open communication is crucial for maintaining an effective mentoring relationship built on trust. It is advised to spend time doing the following to better understand the preferred communication style of your mentee, to establish authentic and honest feedback and to facilitate effective communication in the mentoring relationship.
- Discuss preferred format and appropriate usage (how often, how late is OK, expected time to respond to messages, etc.) of email, phone, texting, office hours, etc. for general questions/concerns, when problems arise, and for emergencies. Include who should be contacted in certain situations (mentor, PI, other group members, etc.) and be honest with your mentees about your availability so that they do not expect more out of you then you can give.
- Tip: Differences in communication styles can present mentoring challenges. One activity that helps to define preferred communication styles can be found here. This activity can be completed individually by both yourself and your mentee followed by a conversation about how you characteristically communicate and process information.
- Utilize open-ended questions when possible and actively listen to their responses.
- Schedule regular check-ins to discuss the progress that is being made towards the research goal. During these check-ins, offer constructive, timely feedback on items the mentee is doing well and on items the mentee could improve.
- Tip: Consider using this document to frame conversations during check-ins.
- Provide regular opportunities for the mentee to give honest and constructive feedback regarding how they are feeling about their research project, how the research is aligning with their career goals, and how the mentorship style is attributing to their success.
- Provide antidotes about your career path and share stories about the paths that others have taken in their careers that might be relevant to the mentee. Encourage mentees to participate in workshops, attend seminars, talk to other PI/advisors, utilize campus career services, etc. that will help the mentee reach their career goals.
Cultivating a Respectful, Inclusive and Approachable Mentoring Relationship
Building rapport with a mentee is one of the most powerful influences on motivation, and the cognitive and emotional development of undergraduates. Being approachable, respectful and friendly have all been shown to increase mentees’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.
- Enter into the mentoring relationship with a positive, open mindset. Set the expectation that both the mentor and mentee will treat each other with respect, honesty and integrity, and will view each other as professionals.
- Be mindful of your positionality, lived experiences, assumptions, biases and stereotypes that you bring into a mentoring relationship. Reflect on how these may impact the relationship and work to minimize any negative impacts they may have towards building an inclusive, equitable and just environment for your mentee.
- Have a discussion with your mentee about what motivates them, what they are passionate about, what personal and academic goals they have and how they prefer to be mentored.
- Invest time in learning about your mentee on an individual level. Be curious about their outside interests, their family, favorite foods, lived experiences, etc. It is important to also share information about yourself. Getting to know individuals on a personal level helps to build trust and identify common values in a mentoring relationship.
- Build in time for informal conversations that provide windows into the emotional state, stressors experienced and specific learning challenges or strengths of the mentee. It is important for the mentor to share how they are feeling about these items as well.
- Be available during the project period to offer guidance, encourage questions, share ideas, and direct the learning process.
- Be a positive role model. Mentees learn a lot from their mentors by simply watching how their mentor responds and behaves. Mentees gain confidence from mentors celebrating successes and creating situations where mentees can become involved, feel part of the research enterprise, learn new things and have the opportunity to showcase their work.
- Do not hesitate to reach out to the Chemistry Undergraduate Research Office if additional resources are needed to support you, your mentee or any aspects of the mentoring relationship.
- Center for Undergraduate Research at the University of Kansas Center: https://ugresearch.ku.edu/ and the Office of URSA at Oregon State University: https://undergraduate.oregonstate.edu/researdocument
- Shanahan, J. O., Ackley-Holbrook, E., Hall, E., Stewart, K., & Walkington, H. (2015). Ten salient practices of undergraduate research mentors: A review of the literature. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 23(5), 359-376.
- Walkington, H., Stewart, K. A., Hall, E. E., Ackley, E., & Shanahan, J. O. (2019). Salient practices of award-winning undergraduate research mentors–balancing freedom and control to achieve excellence. Studies in Higher Education, 1-14.
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- Lee, A., Dennis, C., Campbell, P. (2007). Nature’s Guide for mentors. Nature 447: 791-797.
- Linn, M. C., Palmer, E., Baranger, A., Gerand, E., Stone, El (2015). Undergraduate research experiences: Impacts and opportunities. Science 347: 6222, 1261757.
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- Umbach, P. D., Wawrzynski, M. R. (2005). Faculty do matter: the role of college faculty in mentee learning and engagement. High. Educ. 46: 153–184.
- Palmer, R. J., Hunt, A. N., Neal, M., and Wuetherick, B. (2015). Mentoring, undergraduate research, and identity development: A conceptual review and research agenda. Tutor. 23: 411–426.
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- Temple, L., Sibley, T.Q., & Orr, A.J. (2010). How to Mentor Undergraduate Researchers. Washington, DC: Council on Undergraduate Research
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Additional Mentoring Resources
UW-Madison Delta Program
Research Mentor Training Seminar is offered several times a year through the Delta program. To find the course offerings, look under the 'courses & Seminars' tab.
Optimizing the Practice of Mentoring
The Clinical and Translational Science Institute at University of Minnesota has developed a free, self-paced, online, professional development course designed to prepare faculty from a range of disciplines to be effective research mentors for junior faculty, post-doctoral fellows, and graduate students.
Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research (CIMER)
CIMER provides various resources for organizations and institutions to improve mentoring relationships, including curriculum for mentor and mentee trainings.
Making the Right Moves-HHMI
This book is a collection of practical advice and experiences from seasoned biomedical investigators, including thoughts on laboratory leadership, getting funded, project management, and teaching and course design.
National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN)
NRMN provides trainees across with evidence-based mentorship and professional development programming through in-person trainings, webinars, and virtual mentors.
A chapter in the book "The Mentoring Continuum" that gives tips to mentees on how to manage mentoring relationships.