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Thoughts on Mentoring

What is a mentor?

According to Webster a mentor is a person who acts as guide and adviser to another person, esp. one who is younger and less experienced. Later, more generally: a person who offers support and guidance to another; an experienced and trusted counselor or friend; a patron, a sponsor. Mentoring is an essential process in the research establishment. You are mentored by faculty and other more experienced students. You in turn will mentor junior students. The skills of mentoring are built through experience and practice.

Being a Mentor and Being Mentored

Am I ready to be a mentor?

  • Do you have wisdom that you can impart on others?
  • Do you have the desire to help people less experienced in certain areas than your self?
  • What positive mentoring experiences were a part of your education? Can you avoid the negative experience.
  • Can you incorporate those experiences into your “style”?
  • Why do you do research? Why do you like science? Keep it upbeat.
  • How can you pass your enthusiasm for your research on to your students?

When do I get to the point that I no longer need a mentor?

  • Never. There will always be people who can help guide you

What do I need to convey?

  • Caring, thoughtfulness, respect, empathy, experience, humility

"Mentors who are able to combine enthusiasm with interpersonal, organizational, and research skills play a large role in facilitating positive outcomes" [1]

Mentoring REU Students

The Research Experience for Undergraduates is a major initiative of CMDITR that focuses on preparing students for the workforce of the future. The REU experience has been shown to alter students perceptions about going into graduate school and research careers. [2]

Unique Characteristics of REU students

REU students present some unique challenges for mentors. It is useful to understand where they are coming from and why they are doing the summer research program.

The top reasons for participating in a summer research program:

  • I wanted to learn more about what it’s like to be a researcher.
  • I wanted hands-on experiences to reinforce what I learned in class.
  • I thought it would be fun.
  • The research project(s) sounded interesting.
  • I wanted to know if going to graduate school in engineering was for me.


The Challenges of Novice Researchers REU students are coming from Gateway institutions such as junior colleges and undergraduate colleges that do not have research programs. So they have had little exposure to research themselves or to anyone who is doing research.

  • They possess modest technical skills

-Laboratory skills, critical thinking, literature database skills

  • The are developing personal skills

-Time management, communication (written/oral) skills, dealing with challenges

  • They have learned primarily through coursework

-No textbook! What do I do now? -Lack the ability to critically evaluate information

  • They have no familiarity with research

-They have weak critical thinking skills; they take your word as fact without challenge -They have difficulties developing effective research strategies -They do not understand scientific ethics and research culture

The REU research topic

  • Make sure the research is “level and background appropriate”
  • It is essential to communicate research goals and activities
  • What are we doing? Why is it important? What will this experiment tell us? Connect with your lab priorities.
  • Will the research contribute to the scholarship of the discipline, and to the efforts of the research group?
  • What skills will the student learn?

Clear Expectations

  • Let your students know your calendar, when you will be available, when you will be gone.If you’re gone, make sure the student has someone else to go to in your absence.
  • Indicate what you expect to get out of meetings.
  • Develop and articulate common goals for the research. What is the “finished product”? Push students to set goals.
  • Create opportunities where students can be open and honest with you.
  • Bare minimum: Create a working relationship! If you struggle establishing this minimum, ask for help! Don't wait till the end.

Avoid the Pitfalls

  • Poor planning and management of project (no foundation). Set up a weekly meeting outside of lab.
  • Research roadblocks that aren’t addressed.
  • Lack of help in constructing abstracts, poster, and talks. Check in a few times a day, and roll up your sleeves! Support their learning, and teach! Don't just point them to the research.
  • Isolation from the group. (Note: This is the #1 issue students raise in REU programs) Try to incorporate students into the culture of the lab as much as possible.
  • Personal problems outside the research (mentor and friend!)
  • Inadequate or negligent supervision, lack of interest. Try to chat every morning to make sure daily progress is made, and weekly for overall progress

Problem signs

  • Postponing and procrastinating (meetings, due dates, etc.)
  • Focusing on the next stage of the project instead of the current task
  • Filling time with other projects or tasks not related to the research project (the “facebook” phenomenon)
  • Hesitant to take advice or constructive criticism
  • Intellectualizing practical problems

Thoughts on Being An Effective Mentor

  • Don’t over estimate or under estimate your knowledge
  • Connect to the person - being willing to share your mistakes
  • Treat people with respect, honor the diversity of students
  • Understand that it is not your responsibility to solve people’s problem, but rather to help them solve their problems
  • Empathize, but stay objective and keep some distance
  • Try to keep the persons long term interests in mind. - Sometimes the easy path (most straightforward advice) is not the best advice
  • Be aware of privacy issues - Listen, but take care not to pry into personal matters unless you know the person very well--even then proceed carefully
  • The best mentors are able to assume a variety of roles when appropriate; advisor, teacher, role model, and friend. [4] As the research progresses, your role will evolve.

Other references; [5] [6] [7] [8]

Getting Started as a Mentor

The following notes are directed to Mentors participating in the CMDITR mentorship program.

Your mentee should contact you to set-up an initial meeting, since much of the relationship requires them to be proactive. During the first meeting it is important for you and your mentee to discuss and define expectations and goals for the relationship. To help you with this each of the sections below are items that should be discussed during your first meeting.

Communication & Support: A crucial part of the relationship will be based on communication. You have been matched with a mentee who has the same time commitment preference you noted in your mentor application. However, it will be beneficial to define how you want to communicate with your mentee.

  • Define how and how often you want to communicate: In your mentor application you outlined what the best methods of communication are for you; you should discuss this with your mentee and make sure you both agree on the best method or methods of communication.
  • Defining support: Do you prefer a highly structured relationship where you have a set time to speak with your mentee or do you want a more informal relationship, where your mentee can just stop by or send an e-mail with questions?

Goals: In order to be able to benefit from the relationship as much as possible, it will be helpful for your mentee to define goals. We have advised them to start with the criteria he/she selected on the mentee application. However, as a mentor this is an area where you can truly help guide your mentee. Below are some suggestions we provided for mentees on how to set their goals that will be a good starting point for developing your relationship.

  • Defining a primary goal: Mentees should have a primary goal to discuss throughout the relationship. For example, it can be learning/preparing for a job in a specific field (industry/academics) and/or completing his/her CV.
  • Defining secondary goals: Mentees should also have other goals for the relationship. These are likely to be short term goals or questions they may have for discussion.
  • Prioritizing: Many students struggle with how to prioritize their goals and time. This is an area where your experience can be very beneficial to your mentee.

What’s Expected of You?

As a mentor, you should provide open and honest support for your mentee. Below is a you are ways to help build your relationship with your mentee in a positive manner:

  • Openly communicate with your mentee
  • Keep commitments and be timely
  • Share your experiences
  • Work to make discussion positive
  • Provide constructive criticism
  • Encourage questions


We have explained to your mentee that an important part of being in the scientific community is understanding the confidential nature of scientific work and relationships. As you may have things confidential in nature, so may your mentee and we ask you to respect this part of the relationship.

What to do if you feel the match isn’t right for you?

As a part of the matching process, we try to fit you with a mentee that is best suited to the criteria you selected. However, you may find that after discussion with your mentee he/she may not be the best fit for you.

External Links


  1. Russell, S. H. ; Hancock, M. P.; McCullough, J. Benefits of Undergraduate Research Experiences. Science 2007, 316, 548-549
  2. Russell, S.H.; Hancock, M.P.; McCullough, J. Evaluation of NSF Support for Undergraduate Research Opportunities: Follow-up Survey of Undergraduate NSF Program Participants June 2006.
  3. “RESEARCH EXPERIENCES FOR UNDERGRADUATES (REU) IN THE DIRECTORATE FOR ENGINEERING (ENG): 2003-2006” Participant Survey Executive Summary by Mary P. Hancock and Susan H. Russell
  4. Russell, S. H. ; Hancock, M. P.; McCullough, J. Benefits of Undergraduate Research Experiences. Science 2007, 316, 548-549
  5. “Advisor, Teacher, Role Model, Friend: On being a mentor to students in science and engineering,” 1997, National Academies Press, Washington D. C.
  6. Coppola, B.; “Full Human Presence: A guidepost to Mentoring Undergraduate Science Students,” in New Directions for Teaching and Learning, vol. 85, 2001, Jossey-Bass (Wiley).
  7. Gant, G. D.; Dillon, M. J.; Malott, R. W. A Behavioral system for Supervising Undergraduate Students, Teaching of Psychology, 7, 89 (1980).
  8. Gonzalez, C. Undergraduate Research, Graduate Mentoring, and the University’s Mission Science, 293, 1624 (2001)