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Advice for Faculty: Mentoring Undergraduate Student Researchers

What a mentor should prepare before hiring student:


If data analysis is the primary focus of your project, make sure that the data set you need is procured before they begin.

 Make sure money is in your departmental budget for photocopying, etc., travel for student to meeting.

Type of students you are looking for

Each student’s personality is different — think about the personality of the person you work best with and/or how type of personality required given the nature of the project.

Target students early — those with curiosity, potential in research, and who demonstrate initiative.

Think through the interpersonal dynamics of a student team.

Circulate the list of applicants amongst department members for feedback.

Be clear on your own research ethics.

Prepared Details/Expectations

Prepare written student agreement regarding employment status.  Human Resources offices suggests that all students sign a statement that helps bridge the gap between being a student and being an employee and hit points such as 1) use of official titles in correspondence, and other communications, 2) use of information gained through employment, 3) confidentiality, etc.  The goal in having them sign something would be to initiative a meaningful discussion on what it means to hold such a position (excerpt from the Staff Handbook that may relate.)

Specify that students cannot have a second job.

After hiring and beginning of research project:

Clarity of Expectations

Underscore the goal of working with one another (rather than student working for the mentor).

Underscore that this is pay for a certain amount of work—not salaried, not hourly wages.

Be clear on expectations, which may include signing a statement on joint expectations.

Plan to meet in a timely, regular fashion (e.g., daily, every-other-day).

Create a timeline together.

Together set goals for decisions at the different stages of the project, and clear benchmarks measuring accomplishment.

Plan activities or pieces so that there is variety in research activities.

Get to know the students and their interests and gifts—so you can feed into each other.

Suggest to the student how you would prefer for them to address you (e.g., first name, professor).

Remember that there is a balance between freedom and direction; encouragement and maintaining standards of precision.

Don’t overwhelm the student—pay attention to pacing. Recognize the balance between getting your work done and letting students take ownership.

Project Output

Make sure you are especially mentally and physically present at the beginning and for closure at the end to ensure a product that can be used.

Remember this is not an independent study—you need a product that can be used and understood by others.

Focus on product—not just general reading in all directions.

Identify the formal setting for a presentation by the student early in the research experience.

Logging Student’s Work

Send email questions at the end of the day that relate to research.  This keeps students engaged in learning related to the research topic and continues to provide learning that builds context.

Have students submit an entry at the end of each day to record what has been accomplished during that day and to ask questions.

Construct a shared file that serves as an activity log.

Conclusion of project:

Reflect on the experience.  How often did mentor and student(s) meet?  What was the nature of your discussions?  How successful where different strategies or organizing the research?  Which communication techniques worked best?

Ask students—what do they wish they had known but didn’t?

Pay attention to how you end the experience, especially if it is a multi-year research project.  Clear notes, feedback, and information is essential for maintaining momentum with changes in students.

Miscellaneous Issues to Consider:

How do you make students understand confidentiality?

What are poster presentation protocols and aids.

How do you make students understand the nature of research—often the nature of the questions and direction change throughout the process.

Do not allow students to save data on their own hard drive!  Make sure you obtain access for them to share it on the college system in a shared file that you can access.