Tips For a Successful Mentoring Experience

The tips below are based on the findings of the Learning through Evaluation, Adaptation, and Dissemination (LEAD) Center which was an evaluation conducted of the DREU program (formerly known as DMP) since 1994.

Overall, the LEAD evaluators identified three key elements of the DREU program that were linked to a successful experience for the students:

  1. A mentor who takes an interest in the student’s welfare and provides frequent feedback about the student’s progress.
  2. A research project that is interesting, challenging, and valued by the mentor’s research team.
  3. Immersion in a research-based environment that includes interactions with graduate students.

Ways to prepare for the students’ arrival and reduce start-up time

Given that ten weeks is a relatively short time to complete a comprehensive research project, many mentors try to “make the most” of the ten weeks, by preparing for the students’ arrival in ways that minimize start-up time. The following strategies are suggested:

  • Contacting the student prior to the program. As a mentor, you should contact a student prior to the program to discuss the proposed project, this will enable you to assess the student’s background and learn about their research interests. Following such a discussion, you can decide whether the proposed project is feasible and make changes, if necessary, prior to the student’s arrival. Also, you can suggest readings and other things the student can do before arriving.
  • Helping the student access university services. Setting up a computer account, arranging for an office, and helping the student obtain access to other university services (temporary student identification cards, library cards, etc.) may save start-up time. Many mentors position the student’s desk or office near theirs or that of their graduate students to involve the student more directly in the research team.
  • Helping the student obtain housing. Helping find summer housing is very useful to the students. Many universities have websites or newsgroups listing summer sublets and most have dorms available during the summer. Many DREU students find it convenient to stay on campus, especially if they do not have a car. Often, the student will need your assistance to find out about these options and to fill out any necessary paperwork.

Factors to address when the student arrives and throughout the program

Almost all students have had little or no research experience, and most have not interacted with a faculty member in a cooperative research project. These students hope to learn more about research and graduate school through their experience in the DREU program, and they want their mentor to provide direction by:

  • Explicitly defining the nature of the mentor-student interactions. Students look to their mentor to establish the nature and frequency of their interactions. Students want their mentor to delineate their expectations, with regard to:
    • The goals and expectations for their research project
    • The nature of the mentor-student communication. For example, whether they will communicate through regular, formal meetings, or whether interactions will be on a casual, as-needed basis.
    • The protocol for acquiring day-to-day project-related assistance. In other words, whom to ask when the student has questions, and when and how to contact the mentor.

    Note: If you plan to have the student work with a graduate student, it may be helpful to have the student and graduate student discuss these same issues.

  • Discussing expectations with the student and providing feedback on their progress. Since the students have little experience with research, they may lack a framework to assess their progress. Discussing with the student what you think the student should be able to accomplish over the course of the DREU program and providing ongoing feedback about their progress will give the students a framework within which to work, an idea of how well they are doing on their project, and tools for future self-assessment.
  • Judging whether or not the project is within the technical capabilities of the student. Most students enjoy being able to work independently on projects that are challenging and interesting. However, the degree to which they enjoy working independently depends on their knowledge, experience with a particular topic, and comfort level with the unstructured and open-ended research process. Assessing these skills early in the program will help you both in project selection and in assessing the amount of feedback and guidance a student needs. This type of early assessment will help increase the students’ confidence and independence in their work. Because you often cannot assess a student’s interest level and background prior to knowing the student, it is common for mentors to prepare multiple projects from which the student can choose.
  • Involving the student in the collaborative research process. Almost all students value feeling like a member of the mentor’s research team. By interacting with other graduate students and faculty on a day-to-day basis, they will develop a better understanding of graduate school life and research, and feel like a part of the research community.

Additional Resources

Mentors can use the following exercises with undergraduate and graduate students during their REUs:

Reading A Research Paper

Writing An Abstract

Identifying Related Literature

Code Reading

Elevator Talk

Bibliography Game