Mentoring Undergraduate Researchers

URFM believes that academic research should prioritize the mentorship of undergraduates. To this end, we have compiled a list of resources on mentorship development and best practices that we hope you will find helpful.

Please email us if you have additional ideas on how to promote undergraduate mentorship in research.

Mentoring students in undergraduate research can be highly individualized in process and style, and thus consensus on a definition is elusive. However, literature indicates that undergraduate research mentoring relationships have several attributes in common. Mentoring in undergraduate research consists of personal, reciprocal relationships in which the mentor has more experience and achievements within the field of interest than the mentee. The mentor serves as a role model and provides the mentee with professional and personal support, as well as guidance to achieve a research and/or professional goal (Jacobi, 1991).

The twenty-first-century workplace requires personnel who can deal with complex and often unstructured problems, and higher education must adopt pedagogies to prepare students to meet these needs (Zimbardi and Myatt, 2014). Expanding the accessibility of research experiences and embedding research into curricula are examples of high-impact educational practices (Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008) that can help develop the enhanced communication skills, scholarly writing abilities, organizational skills, and critical thinking capacities sought by employers (see reviews in Zimbardi and Myatt, 2014; Jansen et al., 2015; Gilmore et al., 2015). Opportunities that immerse students in research experiences in dynamic and innovative ways are powerful tools for engaged scholarship that go beyond traditional classroom learning environments and into real-world creation. Students understand they are working on a project with deliverables and outcomes that contribute to new discoveries or creative works within their field. Importantly, evidence indicates that engaging undergraduate students in research as early as possible is essential to exposing more students to the research process of experts in their field, encouraging exploration of various disciplinary topics and careers, and increasing student retention (Elgin, 2016). Additionally, studies have found that participating in undergraduate research is correlated with higher baccalaureate cumulative grade point average, likelihood of graduation within five years, and entrance into graduate school (Gilmore et al., 2015; Carter et al., 2016).

While most of the research examining the impacts of undergraduate research has focused on the experience of the mentees, some studies have explored the experience of the mentors and have found that mentors benefit from the process of mentoring undergraduate students in their research program. Mentors report that mentoring an undergraduate in research is fulfilling on both a professional and psychological level. Mentors understand that mentees can accelerate the mentor’s research productivity, a mentee’s achievements reflect positively on the mentor, and mentees represent a pool of potential collaborators (e.g., Busch, 1985). Mentors also gain personal satisfaction from passing along knowledge, facilitating the professional development of their mentees, and increasing diversity in their field (e.g., Johnson, 2007; Baker et al., 2015).

Mentors come to the mentoring relationship with myriad mentoring skills and abilities. However, no two mentors will approach the relationship in the same way. Fortunately, some attributes of a mentoring relationship consistently produce positive benefits for the student mentees such as planning, clear expectations and benchmarking, relationship building, appropriate training in methodology and professionalism, and developing a students’ self-sufficiency (e.g., Gonzalez, 2006; Mabrouk, 2009; Shanahan et al., 2015; Watkins, 2005).

By Lara LaDage, Lisa Emili, Leigh Ann Haefner

There are many ways in which undergraduate students can be actively engaged in the research process. Three common approaches are through apprenticeships, collaborative team-based projects, and course-based learning.

Apprenticeships are one-on-one faculty mentoring relationships where a student or several students work on a research project with one mentor; the mentor assists students in all phases of the research process. If the project is longitudinal in nature, students may also act as mentors to students new to the research.

Collaborative team-based projects tend to be composed of mentors, students, and researchers outside academia or at different institutions, and students gain similar skills as in apprenticeships. However, students also gain experience in professionalism, persistence and resourcefulness, networking within professional organizations, and leading and working within groups (Jansen et al., 2015; Gilmore et al., 2015).

Course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) are research opportunities that are embedded within the curriculum. Competition for a limited number of apprenticeships and team-based projects excludes many students, including those who lack social capital, those with little knowledge of career structures, and those who may not have performed well in a traditional academic curriculum (Elgin et al., 2016). Thus, in addition to extra-curricular or independent research projects available to those who actively seek them out, there must be opportunities for research experiences embedded within the curriculum (Zimbardi and Myatt, 2014). Access to undergraduate research experiences should be a pedagogical necessity rather than a privilege for a small number of students (PCAST, 2012). If experiences are well-constructed and well-mentored, embedding research experiences into traditional courses provides students with many of the benefits of apprenticeships (Zimbardi and Myatt, 2014). This can be particularly beneficial for students who may not prioritize or may not have time for undergraduate research opportunities, thus increasing equity and inclusion within the broader research community (Bangerra and Brownell, 2014).

To help you establish clear expectations with undergraduates with whom you are working, we have developed an undergraduate research contract. Consider completing this document at the beginning of an undergraduate research experience to help ensure that both you and your student get what is wanted out of the experience.

If you would like to adapt the contract to fit your needs, please contact URFM at for a text version of the contract.

The Council of Undergraduate Research (CUR) is the preeminent organization centered around strengthening undergraduate research and creativity activity. Penn State faculty, staff, and students are eligible to take advantage of the University’s enhanced institutional membership and register for an individual membership at no cost. Membership benefits include access to CUR Quarterly, CUR’s online archive of Webinar Recordings and materials, and more.

CUR suggests the following mentoring strategies to foster strong relationships while maintaining clear expectations for students. While these may seem straightforward for experienced researchers, they may be less clear for a student new to the experience.

  • Make yourself available
  • Foster community
  • Be attentive
  • Be understanding
  • Encourage participation in the broader research community

Incorporating these strategies into your work with your undergraduate researchers will assist with mentee development and help increase your students’ confidence in themselves. This will result in research success for the student and benefit your scholarship.

Video on High Quality Mentoring

This video offers thoughtful reflection on undergraduate research mentorship from scholars at Elon University. The video was produced by the Center for Engaged Learning.

If you are interested in learning how to incorporate undergraduates into their research or reflecting on, and honing, mentorship skills, please contact Lara LaDage ( to request an event tailored to your needs.

Baker, V. L., Pifer, M. J., Lunsford, L. G., Greer, J., & Ihas, D. (2015). Faculty as mentors in undergraduate research, scholarship, and creative work: Motivating and inhibiting factors. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 23(5), 394–410. doi:10.1080/13611267.2015.1126164

Bangerra, G., & Brownell, S. E. (2014). Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences Can Make Scientific Research More Inclusive. CBE- Life Sciences Education, 13(4), 602-606. doi:10.1187/cbe.14-06-0099

Barnett, J. E. (2008). Mentoring, boundaries, and multiple relationships: Opportunities and challenges. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 16(1), 3-16. doi:10.1080/13611260701800900

Busch, J. W. (1985). Mentoring in graduate schools of education: Mentors’ perceptions. American Educational Research Journal, 22(2), 257-265. doi:10.3102/00028312022002257

Carter, D. F., Ro, H. K., Alcott, B., & Lattuca, L. R. (2015). Co-curricular connections: The role of undergraduate research experiences in promoting engineering students’ communication, teamwork, and Leadership Skills. Research in Higher Education, 57(3), 363–393. doi:10.1007/s11162-015-9386-7

Elgin, S. C. R., Bangera, G., Decatur, S. M., Dolan, E. L., Guertin, L., Newstetter, W. C., San Juan, E. F., Smith, M. A., Weaver, G. C., Wessler, S. R., Brenner, K. A., & Labov, J, B. (2016). Insights from a convocation: integrating discovery-based research into the undergraduate curriculum. CBE- Life Sciences Education, 15(2), 1-7. doi:10.1187/cbe.16-03-0118

Gilmore, J., Vieyra, M., Timmerman, B., Feldon, D., Maher, M. (2015). Undergraduate participation and subsequent research performance of early career STEM graduate students. The Journal of Higher Education, 86(6), 834-863. doi:10.1080/00221546.2015.11777386

González, C., Meyers, A., Auerbach, J., & Zellers, D. F. (2006). When Is a mentor like a monk? Academe, 92(3), 29-34. doi:10.2307/40252923

Hammack, J., Lewis, R., McMullen, R., Powell, C., Richards, R., Sams, D. E., & Sims, J. (2017). Mentoring undergraduate research handbook. (2nd ed.) Mentored Undergraduate Research and Creative Endeavors (MURACE). 2. 

Handelsman, J., Pfund, C., Lauffer, S. M., & Pribbenow, C. M. (2005). Entering mentoring: A seminar to train a new generation of scientists. (2005). Itchy Cat Press.

Jacobi, M. (1991). Mentoring and undergraduate academic success: A literature review. Review of Educational Research, 61(4), 505–532. doi:10.3102/00346543061004505

Jansen, D. A., Jaddack, R. A., Ayoola, A. B., Doornbos, M. M., Dunn, S. L., Moch, S. D., Moore, E. M., & Wegner, G. D. (2015). Embedding research in undergraduate learning opportunities. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 37, 1340-1358. doi:10.1177/0193945915571136

Johnson, W. B. (2007). On being a mentor: A guide for higher education faculty. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. doi:10.4324/9781410614063

Kuh, G. W. (2008). High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. American Association of Colleges and Universities.

Mabrouk, P. A. (2009). Survey Study Investigating the Significance of Conference Participation to Undergraduate Research Students. Journal of Chemical Education, 86(11), 1335. doi:10.1021/ed086p1335.

PCAST. (2012, February). Report to the President: Engage to excel: Producing one-million additional college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

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. doi:10.1080/13611267.2015.1126162

Watkins, P. (2005). The principal’s role in attracting, retaining, and developing new teachers: Three strategies for collaboration and support. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Startegies, Issues and Ideas, 79(2), 83-87. doi:10.3200/TCHS.79.2.83-87

Whiteside, U., Pantelone, D. W., Hunter-Reel, D., Eland, J., Kleiber, B., & Larimer M. (2007). Initial suggestions for supervising and mentoring undergraduate research assistants at large research universities. International Journal of Teaching & Learning in Higher Education, 19(3), 325 – 330. 

Zimbardi, K., & Myatt, P. (2014). Embedding undergraduate research experiences within the curriculum: a cross-disciplinary study of the key characteristics guiding implementation. Studies in Higher Education, 39, 233–250. doi:10.1080/03075079.2011.651448