Science resembles a modern-day apprenticeship; training the next generation of scientists requires years of supervised mentorship from senior members. Ideally, principal investigators (heads of laboratories) advise postdocs (research fellows with Ph.D.s) and graduate students on their projects and help them connect to future jobs, and postdocs help graduate students learn new techniques and navigate the politics of the lab and the greater scientific community. Throughout it all, graduate students build their skills, produce data, and validate their scientific craftsmanship with a thesis, after which they are inducted into the guild as fully-fledged members.
But where does an undergraduate researcher fit into all of this?
The role for college students conducting research is variable across fields and institutions and largely dependent on the individual research laboratory. This means that the direction and the support provided by a solid mentor becomes all the more important for any budding undergraduate researcher. Below is a list of tips to help college students become a star mentee.
Find a Star Mentor
A great mentor makes the work of becoming a great mentee much easier. As I wrote in a previous post, star mentors encourage questions, can explain complicated subjects in simple terms, make the time and effort to make sure that you are well-informed, and recognize the fact that mentoring is a mutually beneficial relationship. So, if you haven’t already been matched with a mentor, ask to be paired with a graduate student or a postdoc who has had previous experience working with college students.
Communicate with Your Mentor
Let your mentor know about your goals. Short-term goals could be what you want out of your research experience, like learning about a branch of science, contributing a figure to a manuscript, or gaining marketable skills to put on your resume. Long-term goals could be getting into a graduate program or your dream job. This way, your mentor can tailor his or her mentorship with you get to where you want to be.
One point that I stress over and over in my upcoming book, What Every Science Student Should Know, is the importance of asking questions—in the class, in the laboratory, and at work. Despite their best intentions, your mentors may not know what you don’t know. Don’t feel embarrassed to ask for help or clarification. It’s all part of the learning process, and all of your mentors have gone through it before. Once your questions have been answered, write it down so that you won’t have to ask twice.
Keep in Touch with Your Mentor
Even after the end of your program, make sure to keep up with your mentors. This will help them write great recommendation letter, connect you with their colleagues, and provide you with advice later in your academic career.
Maintaining contact with your mentor is also an act of common courtesy, according to Lisa, a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. “Keep in touch with your mentor about your personal career development. You might think it’s awkward or that your mentor might not be interested, especially if you decide to go into a different field. But these reasons are not true. If you ever mentor a younger student and were really invested in helping them find their own path, it would be heartwarming to receive updates from them to know how they were doing.”
Lisa also stresses asking your mentor about your past projects to make sure that your contribution will be remembered and properly credited. “Often times, the project you’ve worked on can go on for a long time after you leave. Ask your mentor and your principal investigator about the progress of the project. Don’t think that once you’ve finished your summer internship or graduated from college that you are done with your involvement in the project. Email occasionally for updates, stop by and meet in person whenever you are in town, offer to write up what you did, or help with the manuscript writing when the project is ready to be published.”