Six things your research mentor
wants you to know (but probably
won’t think to tell you)

P. H. Grey
Oct. 1, 2015

Most mentors do a solid job informing a new undergrad of the basic requirements of a research position. Typically, they cover the expected time commitment, lab safety procedures, lab dress code, and guidelines for writing a pre-proposal or end-of-semester report. When it comes to working at the bench, most mentors remember to share technical tricks with a new researcher and offer guidance on getting organized, programming equipment and finding research supplies.

But sometimes, because we have been in science for a long time or because we are distracted by our own research goals, we forget what it was like to be a new undergrad adjusting to a professional lab environment. We don’t remember the nervousness or anxiety that often accompanies the unknown. We don’t remember what it was like to try to understand and fit into the lab’s culture. We don’t remember how mysterious our research mentor first seemed or the uncertainty we felt when he appeared to change our experimental plans randomly from time to time. Consequently, it might not occur to us to address these things.

To help ease your transition into your new lab, here are six things that your research mentor probably wants you to know, even if she doesn’t think to tell you.

1. If I don’t hang out and chat at the lab, it doesn’t mean that I don’t like you.

It probably means that I’m overextended or don’t have much spare time each day. I might be in the lab more hours per day than you are in an entire week, and I still might not have enough time to accomplish my goals. Alternatively, your lab schedule might overlap with my busiest time of the day, or I might need to leave lab at a specific time each day, leaving me no extra time to socialize. Therefore, I might focus on conversations that teach you how to interpret results or gain a new research skill, because I want our limited time together to make the greatest impact on your research experience. That might mean sticking to conversations about research and science.

2. Just as starting a new research position is tiring for you, working with a new undergrad is challenging for me.

And sometimes I need a break just like you do. On occasion, I might send you home early, might not have something for you to do, or might not be immediately responsive to your email or text. It doesn’t mean I don’t like you (see No. 1), but I might need to restructure my time temporarily, or I might need a break from researchlike things. Although it might be difficult to believe, I do try to have some type of life outside the lab. This means that I might need to put a new undergrad’s project on the back burner for a short time to make time for my other priorities.

3. I hope that you’ll be inspired by your research project, but if you’re uninterested or would rather be anywhere else than the lab, you’re not going to get much out of your research experience.

If you don’t show up regularly or don’t work hard, I won’t go out of my way to tell the professor you’re underperforming, but I’ll be honest when she asks for my opinion. So if you’re not excited about the project or what I have to teach you, it would be better for you to make a professional exit and find a research project that inspires you. I’ll understand, because I know that my area of research isn’t right for everyone. However, if you show me that you value the time you spend in the lab, I’ll be happy to teach you everything you need to succeed – and you’ll earn an epic letter of recommendation.

4. If I say “thank you” more often than “good job,” it’s because I appreciate your efforts, but there isn’t much praise given in a professional research lab for meeting basic expectations.

You’ll realize quickly that it wouldn’t mean much if I praised you for learning how to pipette or prepare a 5M sodium chloride solution. I’ll probably save the praise for things such as when you master a difficult technique, come up with a good troubleshooting idea, or stay late to help someone else finish an experiment. I want you to feel proud of your accomplishments, and I know that false praise won’t help you do that.

5. When I don’t immediately give you the answer to your question and instead coach you through the answer, it’s because I’m investing in you.

Trust me – even if I have mentored 50 other undergrads, it takes more effort on my part to ask you to explain, analyze or reason through your own question than simply to give you the answer. But I know that coaching is critical to both your personal and your professional development and will help you to make a deeper connection to your research project. So I hope you remember that I’m not being a jerk and it’s not a power thing when I ask you to try to answer your own question – it’s a mentoring thing.

6. Sometimes I brag about how awesome you are to my colleagues. When I do, I probably just call you “my undergrad,” but if you’re working hard and investing in your research experience, I’ll be excited to share how much fun it is to mentor a student who is genuinely enthusiastic about science.

And I’ll probably make my spouse listen a few times as well (sometimes until I’m asked to move on to another subject). It’s impossible not to be proud after you present your first poster or give a polished talk at a lab meeting. Watching your CV and self-confidence grow is one of the best parts of being a mentor. Bragging about it is pretty good too.

P. H. GreyP. H. Grey works as a molecular biologist and is co-creator of Undergrad in the Lab. She is co-author of the new book "Getting In: The Insider's Guide to Finding the Perfect Undergraduate Research Experience." 
P. H. Grey

P. H. Grey works as a molecular biologist and is co-creator of Undergrad in the Lab. She is also co-author of the book "Getting In: The Insider's Guide to Finding the Perfect Undergraduate Research Experience."

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