Understanding Undergraduate Research Mentorship

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).

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).

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