Becoming a better undergraduate research mentor


Undergraduate research experiences are increasingly desired by students and are often considered essential when applying to postgraduate programmes, but mentoring undergraduates is not always straightforward. Since 2018, I have involved more than 20 students in my project on reproductive health and HIV/AIDS in Europe. This research course is part of a study abroad program for North American students who spend an academic term in Stockholm or Copenhagen. We use approaches from health systems research and medical anthropology, encouraging students to discover academic disciplines outside of the ‘wet’ lab settings that many of them associate with research. While we have been successful by the conventional metrics of publications, I have not always been the best research mentor. Reflecting on my experiences, and on those of others, I’ve adapted my mentoring approach in four key ways.

First, while project remains central to the course, I gradually put more emphasis on teaching students about becoming a researcher. Science is a culture, with all kinds of strange norms, values, practices, and rituals. I began to use our weekly seminars to discuss various aspects of research practice such as academic writing and presenting, publishing and the peer-review process, and public outreach. Moreover, because the course is in the context of study abroad, we also discuss the differences between research cultures in Denmark, Sweden and the US, particularly regarding ethical review processes.

Second, I tried to balance the mix of students. Each term I usually receive 10-15 applications and accept three. Ideally, these will have complimentary skills and experience and can learn from each other. For instance, a student who has done a poster presentation can share their experience in disseminating research.  Because of the project’s subject and methods, I also accept at least one student who has taken an anthropology or reproductive health class.  My boss encouraged me to read applications for determination, perseverance, and enthusiasm, not necessarily for previous experience. Many students have not had the privilege to have been involved in research and for some this may be their only opportunity during their undergraduate career. Our project repeatedly faced challenges (not least because of the pandemic). In these cases, having a creative, dedicated, and resourceful student is more important than a student with a long CV but who lacks those skills.

Third, I aimed to be organised, but not too organised. Students appreciate clear guidelines and a research protocol to follow. But it is also important to give them the space to adapt or consider new methods, and to take on responsibilities for choosing journals or conferences to disseminate findings. They also need the space to “fail” and to think through alternative ways of organising the research. Asking students for their opinions demonstrates respect and encourages confidence. Students also often over-estimate what they can deliver. Unfortunately, many experienced researchers are also stuck in the trap. Address this now before it turns into an unsustainable practice that leads to burn out in 10 or 20 years! Tell students that you appreciate their ambition, but gently guide them towards what is reasonable to accomplish in a single academic term.

Fourth, I became clearer about publishing expectations upfront. In public health and medicine, many researchers rely on the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE)’s recommendations on authorship, although these may be difficult to fairly implement in large, multi-year and multi-sited projects. Because of the course’s structure, none of the students were able to be substantially involved in the whole project or publication process. In the case of our three publications, students would submit a manuscript at the end of the semester and I would spend the holidays revising it, sending it to students for final approval and submitting it. By the time it was through peer review I would have a new group of students. While I took an inclusive approach to authorship, this is somewhat unfair: some students were passionate and poured themselves into the project – even finding unique ways to drive it forward when we got stuck –, while others’ contributions were minimal. My recommendation is to use the ICMJE guidelines and articles which critique them as a basis for discussion at the beginning of the semester. Then, in collaboration with the students, agree early on about what level of contribution is expected, and what the consequences are for not meeting this.

Overall, research assistants are not there to make your life easier or to do your work for you. On the contrary, few undergraduates are capable of independently conducting research and writing publishable articles – be prepared to invest a lot of time reviewing and editing their work. Rather, your role as a mentor is to encourage and inspire, and to guide them into the strange and wonderful world of research!

About the author: Rachel Irwin is a part-time lecturer at DIS Study Abroad in Scandinavia and an associate professor (docent) in ethnology at Lund University.

Competing interest: None

Handling Editor: Neha Faruqui

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