Graduate Students as Mentors to Undergraduates in Research: A Discussion of Benefits and Limitations, PURM 3.1

Rebecca C. Jordan, Rutgers University, U.S
Wesley R. Brooks, Rutgers University, U.S.

In recent years there has been great interest in the value of undergraduate research to students, faculty, and the scientific community at large (see discussion in Lopatto, 2003). Benefits of undergraduate research include, but are not limited to, improvements in psychological well-being, clarification of career goals, scientific literacy, scientific skills attainment, academic retention, and cognitive development (see review in Bauer & Bennett, 2003). Furthermore, such independent research experiences can have a number of benefits related to professionalism, socialization into communities of practice, and confidence (e.g., Hunter, Laursen, & Seymour, 2007; Seymour et al., 2004).

Providing these research experiences is not without cost, however. First, there can be a tension between the goals of the research in terms of an educational experience as opposed to scholarship alone (Laursen, Seymour, & Hunter, 2012). Additionally, faculty surveyed at a large comprehensive university cited limitation in time and resources as a barrier to providing undergraduates with research (e.g., Zydney et al., 2002). In spite of these costs, the faculty in this study recognized the value of these independent experiences for undergraduates and discussed benefits for their graduate students in terms of gaining teaching and mentorship experiences. The authors did not comment, however, on the extent of graduate participation or whether or not graduate students eased the burden of providing authentic research for undergraduates.

In this manuscript we will discuss the implementation of a graduate student-led mentorship program targeting undergraduate research at a large research-intensive university. We focus particularly on graduate student development because while the effects of undergraduate research programs have been well documented, graduate student development has not garnered much attention. Further, we discuss the relative effort of faculty involved in the program to determine if our approach could help to ameliorate some of the barriers to faculty participation described above.

The Graduate Mentoring Fellows Program
The goal of the Graduate Mentoring Fellows Program (GMFP) was to engage graduate students in a certificate program focused on improving undergraduate research mentoring skills. Here we define mentorship as “a process by which persons of superior rank, special achievements and prestige, instruct, counsel, guide and facilitate the intellectual and/or career development of another,” (Blackwell, 1989). The program integrated theory, scholarship, and application in the development of both tangible and conceptual tools for graduate students to employ while working with undergraduate mentees. This experience needed to (1) be manageable in terms of time (i.e., no more than one hour of coursework per week) and (2) make explicit the professional development of the graduate students in an effort to showcase this certificate for both scholarly and professional advancement.

GMFP was advertised as an academic year-long certificate program intended to provide participants with the opportunity to study the functions involved with serving as a mentor to undergraduates in the sciences. Through this program, Ph.D. students were encouraged to develop the skills necessary for the management of teaching college classes and laboratories. They also discussed how to establish professional relationships with students to help them realize their academic and professional potential. In addition, setting boundaries, identifying cultural norms across the disciplines, and professional responsibility in academe were covered. Sessions also included what it means to be a faculty member and how future faculty should consider the multiple roles of the academic profession. A $300 travel grant was offered to the graduate students as an incentive for participation. Participants were expected to attend weekly course meetings in the fall and a bi-weekly seminar to discuss issues and development in the spring. They were also expected to hold regular meetings with their undergraduates in order to encourage and prepare their mentees to complete a final presentation of their research project via a poster or oral presentation to the entire GMFP group at a research showcase event at the end of the academic year.

Thirteen graduate students enrolled in the program after nineteen individuals expressed interest. Three students did not remain involved beyond the first semester (one student cited timing, one cited workload, and one did not continue). One of the ten graduate students who completed the program opted to not complete the evaluation materials. Meanwhile, twelve undergraduates, mentored by our graduate students, agreed to participate at some level in the program (either by responding to surveys and/or participating in a final presentation to the group).

While not part of an intended research project, we wanted to determine the extent to which graduate students reported satisfaction, a sense of professional skill development, and a change in mentorship perceptions and practices. In addition, we sought to determine the extent to which the undergraduates changed their views on mentorship and their professional goals. We, therefore, conducted an informal evaluation of our program (See Supplemental Materials for select questions used in survey instruments asked of undergraduate or graduate students, whose responses informed our evaluation). Below we highlight some of our findings in an effort to initiate a discussion that can guide more systematic research into the practice of graduate-undergraduate student mentorship.

Our Findings
Time Commitment Given to the Course Relative to Other Needs – All eight graduate student respondents felt that the time required was reasonable. While seven respondents set goals for their research that they did not attain, they attributed time management as the primary reason for not meeting their goals (research goals were consistently rated as the most important activity for graduate students). Additionally, six graduate student respondents said assessment for success as graduate students was based on publication productivity, while the remaining two based success on mentor approval. Most graduate student respondents had made contributions in terms of publication and reported no change or improvements in terms of relations with their mentors.

Views on Professional Development and Scholarship – All nine graduate student respondents felt that they had sufficient material to use in their Curriculum Vitae and teaching portfolios. The broadening of views on scholarship was a major interest of the course participants. Interestingly, when asked about their thoughts about the parallels between mentorship and scholarly research before the mentoring experience, only two graduate student respondents approached the question by identifying parallels in the type of scholarly thinking used. The others responded with topical responses (e.g., scheduling, timing, etc.). Post experience, while only one individual approached the question by focusing on scholarly thinking, four graduate students changed their responses to parallel thinking in procedure (e.g., troubleshooting type responses).

Changes in How Mentorship is Viewed Pre- and Post-participation – We asked participants to define what makes a “good mentor” and “good mentee” and divided their responses into four variable categories: 1. knowledge variables (referring to characteristics featuring conceptual knowledge or procedural skill), 2. integrity variables (referring to characteristics such as responsible, honest, or respectful), 3. affective variables (referring to characteristics such as sensitive, caring, patient, committed, motivated, responsive, open, etc.), and 4. skill variables (referring to characteristics featuring mentoring skills targeting mentor or mentee communication, clarity, organization, timely, encouraging independence, or critical thinking).

Of the eight graduate student mentor and eight undergraduate mentee respondents, five of each cited knowledge variables pre-experience, while only three of each cited them post-experience. Integrity variables were mentioned by one mentor and one mentee each before and by two mentors and one mentee after the program. Affective variables were cited by six of each group before and by all mentors and seven mentees after the program. Finally, skill variables were cited by three mentors and one undergraduate before and by five mentors but no mentees post-experience.

Regarding mentee quality, affective variables were cited by all eight mentor respondents both pre- and post-experience. However, the number of mentors citing integrity (from five to three), skill (from four to two), and knowledge (from one to zero) variables were all less frequently cited after completion of the program by mentors.

Changes in Career Plans of Undergraduates Pre- and Post-participation – Two of the nine undergraduate respondents previously said that they intended to apply for graduate school for research and still intend to do so while the other seven respondents reported a change in their views on the research profession because of their research experience with graduate student mentors. Five of these undergraduate respondents have chosen not to pursue research (and presumably graduate school) as a profession while the other two undergraduate respondents are now considering applying to graduate school. Thus, while seven undergraduate respondents were originally interested in pursuing graduate school before the program, only four respondents claim to be interested now. Interestingly, though the attrition rate of those undergraduates originally interested in graduate school was five out of seven (71%), both of the respondents who did not originally profess an interest in applying to graduate school now say that they are likely to after being mentored in active research. Eight of nine undergraduate respondents reported positive experiences with their mentors, yet only two of the respondents reported being able to pursue independent research projects as may be necessary for future career goals.

Undergraduate Mentee Experience – Looking beyond graduate education, 10 out of 11 undergraduate respondents reported in a separate set of surveys that they felt they got what they were looking for out of the research lab experience. All 11 responded that they gained valuable skills from this experience. As one individual eloquently stated, “Although I decided not to go to grad school, the “thinking” skills, including reading, presenting, and simply carrying a project from start to finish, are skills that will be applicable in almost any field I decide to go into.”

When probed about particular strengths and weaknesses, students listed the following strengths: figuring out problems independently, time management, interpersonal skills, organization skills, analytical skills, teamwork skills, hands-on identification of problems, brainstorming skills, leadership skills, and excitement to do research. Weaknesses included: stats, designing independent research, troubleshooting errors, getting frustrated, and relating to the big picture. What is notable about these responses is that they are the kinds of benefits and realizations that faculty are often seeking to promote for their students when in mentoring relationships. As stated earlier in the manuscript, these include professionalism, socialization into communities of practice, and confidence (e.g., Hunter, Laursen, & Seymour, 2007; Seymour et al., 2004). The latter is particularly important for engagement as many students may lack confidence because, as one student stated, “ [I was] afraid of making mistakes and screwing things up.” Post-experience, we also noted that students attributed their supreme confidence in (1) carrying out experiments, (2) analyzing results, and perhaps most importantly, (3) asking for help, to the mentoring experience.

The evidence we compiled over the course of the academic year suggests that our program resulted in enhanced professional skills and a change in mentorship views with respect to undergraduate science mentees and graduate student mentors. With respect to mentorship views, it appears that mentors and mentees focus least on integrity and skill variables when identifying a good mentor, yet, knowledge variables were the only ones that decreased in stated importance post-experience in both groups. It seems that both mentee and mentor attitudes are viewed as of primary importance to having a positive mentorship experience. Finally, undergraduate researchers overwhelmingly reported positive experiences with the majority of these students reporting a change in career plans as a result of their participation, though not necessarily in favor of a career in research or plans to attend graduate school. Additionally, these undergraduates reported gaining (and sometimes not gaining) skills that generally meet the goals of these types of experiences, with the key difference being that graduate students, rather than faculty, were their primary mentors.

While we only have limited data, we can explore the notion that positive intention and enthusiasm are the most highly valued elements of the mentor/mentee relationship. This should come to no surprise given the highly social nature of the laboratory working environment when compared to the classroom. Indeed, socialization has been cited as a key benefit of the independent laboratory experience (e.g., Hunter, Laursen, & Seymour, 2007; Seymour et al., 2004). Most of the mentees and mentors shared positive experiences.

Additionally, we can hypothesize that the graduate mentors may have entered the endeavor with a sense that students who were more knowledgeable would be more successful mentees, but then changed their expectations as a result of the experience. Almost all of the mentors shared, anecdotally, that students had less research knowledge and skill than expected. Yet, these mentors reported positive experiences. It is possible that in working with their mentees, they found interpersonal benefit, which may not have been expected.

However, in light of these positive experiences, the net result was a decrease in the intention to enter graduate school on the part of the undergraduates. This was somewhat unexpected given other studies (e.g., Zydney et al., 2002). We believe that this level of attrition may be related to a realistic sense of the profession. Indeed, a series of national studies suggests a 50% attrition rate from graduate school (Lovitts & Nelson, 2000). This is higher than the undergraduate level of attrition and has interestingly been linked to a similar cause as the latter: lack of social support (Lovitts, 1996). We argue that research into the types of social support provided is warranted. In summary, the data presented in this manuscript, though scant, encourages a broader discussion of the nature of the undergraduate research experience and the potentially large role graduate students can play as mentors to undergraduates.

Supplemental Materials
Select questions asked of participants and used to inform this program evaluation.

Jordan Brooks 1a  Jordan Brooks 1bJordan Brooks 1c

The Graduate Mentoring Fellowship Program was funded by NSF I-cubed grant #0930134 awarded to R. Edwards, E. Kowler, M. Pazzani, J. Kukor, and P. Moghe. We’d also like to thank J. Kukor, E. Kowler, and C. Farber for their support of this endeavor and all of 2011-2012 academic year participants.

Works Cited
Bauer, K. W., & Bennett, J. S. (2003). Alumni perceptions used to assess undergraduate research experience. The Journal of Higher Education, 74(2), 210-230.

Blackwell, J. E. (1989). Mentoring: An action strategy for increasing minority faculty. Academe, 75(5), 8-14.

Hunter, A.-B., Laursen, S. L., & Seymour, E. (2007). Becoming a scientist: the role of undergraduate research in students’ cognitive, personal, and professional development. Science Education, 91(1), 36-74.

Laursen, S., Seymour, E., & Hunter, A.-B. Learning, teaching and scholarship: fundamental tensions of undergraduate research. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 44(2), 30-37.

Lopatto, D. (2003). The essential feature of undergraduate research. Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly, 24, 139-142.

Lovitts, B. E., & Nelson, C. (2000). The hidden crisis in graduate education: attrition from Ph.D. programs. Academe, 86(6), 44-50.

Lovitts, B. E. (1996). Who is responsible for graduate student attrition – the individual or the institution? Toward an explanation of the high and persistent rate of attrition. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Education Research Association.

Seymour, E., Hunter, A.-B., Laursen, S. L., & DeAntoni, T. (2004). Establishing the benefits of research experiences for undergraduates in the sciences: first findings from a three-year study. Science Education, 88(4), 493-534.

Zydney, A. L., Bennett, J. S., Shahid, A., & Bauer, K. W. (2002). Impact of undergraduate research experiences in engineering. Journal of Engineering Education, 91(2), 151-157.

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