This week we posted a series of blog posts from participants in The Ohio State University-hosted Summer Research Opportunities Program. If you are a researcher who would like to get involved with SROP and are interested in mentoring talented underrepresented students interested in research and graduate studies, please contact SROP Program Manager Dominiece Hoelyfield (hoelyfield.1@osu.edu).

To end our series, we are excited to present mentoring advice and resources from Dr. Marcela Hernandez, Administrative Director of The Office of Post Doctoral Affairs at Ohio State.

Five Important Considerations When Mentoring Undergraduate and Young Researchers

By: Dr. Marcela Hernandez, Administrative Director of The Office of Post Doctoral Affairs at Ohio State.

During my journey as a research trainee, I experienced both great mentoring and little to no mentoring at all. The contrast and the outcomes of these experiences changed profoundly my self-esteem and confidence as well as my approach to mentoring others. You can learn more about my mentoring story here and here. I became a mentoring evangelist and talked to anyone who would listen about the importance of mentoring in the success of trainees and their productivity. This led me to my involvement with the National Research Mentoring Network and have participated as a virtual mentor and received training to facilitate mentor training workshops. We have a program to offer these workshops to faculty and postdoctoral scholars and we hope to expand it in 2021.

It is crucial that young researchers have good mentoring. As they go through their experience, they will make decisions about continuing the research path or not. Those decisions often are made based on the mentoring they received and not on whether they are capable of conducting research. A negative mentoring experience often results in the student concluding they are not good enough and decide not to continue in research. This is the wrong conclusion and an unfortunate outcome. A more accurate assessment is that the person who train and mentor them did a poor job, and the question of whether they are capable of doing research is still unresolved.

Here I provide a list of five things to consider for those who are mentoring young researchers:

  • Explain your research as you would to a lay audience. Remember you are talking to a non-expert. Avoiding jargon and keeping concepts simple is the place to start. As you train and mentor the student, you can elevate the level of your research conversations. A good mentor meets the student where they are and rise their level of understanding through the research experience. Resources about science communication are great to teach experts how to make non-experts understand what they do. Some resources that I would recommend are The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and the AAAS Communication Toolkit, but there are many more a Google search away.
  • Align expectations. It is important that both mentor and mentee agree on what is expected from each of them during the research experience. Being explicit and clear from the beginning will prevent miscommunication and conflict later. A great way to accomplish this is to use a mentoring compact that is signed by both parties. There are many examples available online UG Mentoring Compact.
  • Explain research group etiquette and culture. As newcomers to research spaces, undergraduate students do not understand all the rules and customs associated with sharing space, reagents, etc. It is crucial that you familiarize the student with your research group procedures and policies. The culture of the group is also important to talk about and to introduce the student to everyone in the group. This will increase the likelihood that the student becomes a good citizen of the research space and that they feel comfortable talking to everyone in the group. The latter is important in case the primary mentor is not around when they need something or have a question.
  • Ascertain the student’s communication and learning style. We all have different communication styles and learn best in different ways. It is important that mentors of young researchers take the time to assess their mentee’s communication styles and inform them of their own style. This will help avoid problems with communication. Once the mentor knows how to communicate more effectively and what is the best mode of communication, it will be easier for them to adapt to what the student responds to best. There are many free online assessment tools that can be used for this. Some examples are Communication Styles: A Self-Assessment Exercise and Communication Style self-assessment.
  • Be approachable. The productivity of most students plummets when they do not feel they can ask questions without negative consequences. Working under lots of stress can also result in lack of progress. Thus, it is best to protect mentees from the mentor’s stress. Advanced researchers are busy people and have multiple competing priorities. The stress this causes can sometimes result in a negative interaction with a young trainee: stress is very contagious. Be patient and create an atmosphere in which students feel they can make mistakes and learn from them. Give them constructive criticism and treat them with kindness, but also be honest and make sure you hold them to high ethical and scientific standards.

Remember that not all students start at the same level, and that they do not all develop at the same rate. Do not fall into the habit of measuring every student against our own strengths. Ultimately your role as a mentor is to help your students grow and develop until they become independent. The more you invest in your mentoring skills, the more productive your students will be.