Serving as a research mentor to a University of Chicago student researcher is an important role. Students value the opportunity to conduct research under the guidance of a faculty member or research mentor and the institution values your contribution to undergraduate and early-career graduate education by providing meaningful remote research experiences that allow a student to engage deeply in their discipline and grow as scholars. Research mentors – including faculty, principle investigators, post-docs, and graduate students – are especially vital in a remote research environment, aiding in a student researcher’s successful management of an unexpected experience that more independent and self-directed than “in-person” experiences.
First and foremost, it is very important to avoid making assumptions about what UChicago students do or do not know when it comes to undertaking research. In fact, assuming they know more than they do may not only compromise the quality of their experience but also their health, safety, and the ethical integrity of the research. Invest time early on in their remote research experience to help them understand not only how to execute the research itself, but also where they can go for the required or recommended online training and additional research supporting services, including the University Libraries. Please visit the “Strategies for Effective Remote Research” information on this site for an overview of the information provided to student researchers.
Successful mentoring and advising of students engaged in research is predicated upon developing a close relationship, ensuring regular contact, and providing supervision that builds confidence and professional competencies, encourages questioning and reflection, and leads to increased independence by the project’s conclusion. Though the norms of mentoring and advising research experiences may vary from field to field and when working with undergraduate and graduate students, at its core this functions as a pedagogical partnership with the student researcher aimed at helping them to develop appropriate questions, create research plans, and solve problems aimed at project completion. In addition to the academic skills gained through a research experience, there are also practicable skills that include acquiring insight into the ethical norms and methodologies of different fields, learning how to apply research methods, and learning to communicate their research to a broader audience in both written and oral formats. This partnership also ensures that a student researcher comes to terms with the positive aspects of failure in the research process, thereby building confidence as they adapt and pursue new lines of inquiry. Detailed below are suggestions for establishing and maintaining strong and productive mentoring relationships, even at a distance.
Supporting Successful Summer Remote Research
Establish Clear Expectations
- Undergraduates and early-career graduate students benefit from structure, as well as clear, well-articulated expectations.
- Describe roles and responsibilities carefully and ensure that students understand that it is important for them to ask questions as often as is necessary until they fully understand how to effectively execute their research.
- Ensure that when you ask a student to begin a new project or portion of the existing research, that it is at once realistic in the given time-frame, feasible – particularly in a remote environment – and challenging.
- Establish a regular weekly schedule of work and weekly or bi-weekly check-ins.
- Follow up with student researchers after providing new directions, instructions, or research tools/methodologies to allow them to ask questions.
- Regular communication with student researchers is vital, especially in a remote research experience. As a part of your collaborative research plan, develop a communication strategy that your researcher can count on across the duration of their experience. They value and, in fact, need standing check-in meetings and to know that if they have questions, they can reach out to you. This is especially critical in a remote environment in which students are operating more independently than they anticipated.
- Outline communication expectations during your first meetings with your student researcher; establish regular check-ins (weekly is ideal).
- Make sure student researchers know how best to communicate with you – by email, Zoom, MS Teams, phone, etc. They should also know how (and when) to contact others in the research group, should that be necessary.
- Consider including them in your regular lab or research group meetings as well. This can help your researcher feel as though they are part of the larger research effort and allow for additional forms of learning, including how to communicate their own work to a larger audience. It also provides another opportunity to ask questions and receive feedback.
- When working with your student researcher to develop a schedule, bear in mind that some may have additional commitments beyond the research project, including working a part-time job or taking care of family commitments. This is particularly relevant if the research project is not “full-time” grant-funded project. They may need to be able to develop an adaptive schedule with your direction.
- Budget time for students to acquire necessary skills or techniques, especially for students who may be new to research. There should also be additional time allowed for adapting to a remote research environment.
- Students will learn important lessons through trial and error; they should be allowed to explore potential avenues of inquiry, even if unlikely to work. However, good mentorship also involves helping students understand their limitations, reining them in as appropriate, and guiding them in developing a foundational understanding of what “feasibility” means in research. Doing this sooner, rather than later, will also protect against significant loss in time and resources.
- Keep in mind that undergraduates and early-career graduate studentsneedstructure and a well-defined project (or portion of the larger project) that is tailored toward their skill level and interests. This will ensure a successful experience that allows them to have intellectual ownership.
Consider the “soft-skills” developed through mentorship
Even in remote research environments, students have the opportunity to learn new and valuable soft skills that help in their overall development as scholars. To that end, consider the following suggestions:
- Spend time with your students and get to know them as individuals, not simply as your research assistants.
- Encourage persistence in the face of setbacks and help them understand the value of failure.
- Once they demonstrate their commitment to the research project, treat students as professionals who merit the same opportunities for development as more advanced students or other colleagues.
- After their research experience is complete, consider providing continued mentorship, academic and career guidance.
- Recommend them to other UChicago resources for funding to present their research at conferences, encourage them to consider pursuing research grants for academic year research, and so forth. These include resources provided through their home departments, the College Center for Research and Fellowships (undergraduates) and UChicago Grad (early-career graduate students).
Train students in research integrity and responsible conduct of research
- Refer to section three, “Strategies for Successful Remote Research”, for additional information on important considerations including training, research ethics, and other important resources that will ensure your student researchers are successful, safe, and ethical in their research practices.
- For more information on how to train undergraduates and early-career graduate students in research integrity and responsible conduct of research, consult the following resources:
- Melusky, A Practical Guide to Working with Undergraduate Research Assistants (London: Sage Publications, 2019).
M. Della-Piana, C. Kubo Della-Piana, and M. K. Gardner, Evaluating the Undergraduate Research Experience: A Guide for Program Directors and Principal Investigators (Charlotte: Information Age Publishing, 2014).
M. Campbell and B. Lom, “A Simple E-Mail Mechanism to Enhance Reflection, Independence, and Communication in Young Researchers,” CBE – Life Sciences Education 5 (2006): 318-322.
Ideas for transitioning to remote research projects
Transitioning a research project to a remote environment is certainly challenging but it also presents new opportunities. Below are some suggestions for student research work curated from faculty across disciplines and institutional types. This is a developing list but may provide some ideas:
- Perform data analysis; develop and/or use computational models
- Conduct literature searches and reviews
- Create figures, tables, and/or charts
- Write methodology and/or introduction sections for papers, posters, etc.
- Research future trends and/or new product ideas
- Identify online learning modules based on your research that could be used for future distance education
- Learn new skills like modeling software, drawing software, plotting software, etc.