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Mentoring Undergraduate Researchers

Undergraduates bring enthusiasm and fresh ideas to the research process and are important contributors to the intellectual community. Some students may choose to pursue independent research or creative projects and seek out faculty to provide guidance for their work. Other students can provide valuable assistance to faculty research projects.

With support, training, and guidance, they can contribute in a variety of ways, including

  • conducting library research and literature reviews
  • assisting with data collection, data entry, and analysis
  • recruiting, scheduling, and running study participants
  • conducting and transcribing interviews
  • acting as research and laboratory assistants

These are only a few examples. In the end, the manner in which undergraduates are incorporated into the research process depends on the discipline, the project, and the needs of the faculty member.

When embarking on a project with an undergraduate researcher, faculty may wish to make sure that the project

  • is reasonable in scope
  • is feasible considering time/skill
  • is multi-faceted and challenging
  • allows the student to generate his or her own data or findings

To ensure that the mentoring experience goes smoothly, you may wish to

  • establish expectations and devise a work plan
  • set aside regular time for discussion
  • encourage students to ask questions and share ideas
  • discuss intellectual property issues
  • orient students to resources and processes
  • emphasize documentation of research
  • keep communications open and regular

These suggestions and additional resources are provided by the Center for Undergraduate Research & Creative Activities at SUNY Buffalo, and by the Wisconsin Center for Education Research.

Faculty Incentives for Mentoring Undergraduates

There are many benefits for faculty working with undergraduate researchers.

Financial. Faculty in disciplines that are less oriented around large funding agencies may benefit from the availability of undergraduates who are interested in contributing to their research on a volunteer basis. This also serves as an advantage for junior faculty who are still working their way up to large sources of external funding. When seeking outside funding, budgeting for undergraduate research assistants may offer cost advantages compared to other types of assistantships.

Broader impacts. The National Science Foundation reviews the merit of proposals partly on the broader impact of the proposed work. Budgeting to include undergraduate research assistants can give a project a broader impact by promoting teaching, training, and learning.

Contributions to the literature. Some student-initiated undergraduate research projects go on to publication, where they can make a novel contribution to the mentor’s field. Other projects may complement or supplement other work done in the same lab.

Training the next generation. Students who start doing research as undergraduates have a head start in their preparation for graduate school. Working with these highly motivated students as undergraduates can lead to their eventually becoming successful researchers, and possible collaborators, in their own right.

Connecting research and undergraduate education. As the role of higher education in society continues to change, universities have become more concerned about striking a balance between their research agendas and their mission to educate undergraduates. Engaging students in research ties these two aims together uniquely: undergraduate researchers deepen their knowledge of a content area, they acquire the technical skills needed to advance to graduate programs, and they develop professional skills that will serve them throughout their careers. UT faculty members have identified steps that faculty members and administrators can take to facilitate undergraduate involvement in research

  • Incentivizing new models of engaged learning with course releases, stipends, or other forms of remuneration
  • Creating networks of faculty members with an interest in integrating teaching and research
  • Bringing practica to earlier stages of undergraduate education
  • Granting formal recognition or credit to faculty who mentor undergraduate researchers
  • Engaging in more cross-disciplinary research that can include students from several majors
  • Taking advantage of existing programs (e.g. First-Year Interest Groups, Freshman Research Initiative, etc.)
  • Imparting on students a desire for aspiration and exploration
  • Including students at all levels