Thoughts on Mentoring Undergraduate Research Assistants

Published: 05 November 2019

The Center for Undergradaute Research at Augusta University asked me to be on two panels about mentoring undergraduate research assistants. The first being for new faculty and the second for students. I decided to write up my thoughts on mentoring students so that panel attendees may access my answers later, but also just to share them

What is Undergraduate Research to Me?

Undergraduate research means a lot to me, because it is how I fell in love with research, and it is how I decided to go to graduate school. As a faculty member I work with undergraduates to share my love for research and my field of study. Thus, to me it is important that a student get to experience the full range of what it means to do research. I include the student in brainstorming new ideas, synthesizing new results, and communicating those results both orally – through giving talks – and in written form – by writing papers. Furthermore, I approach working with my students in the same way that I approach working with collaborators. I treat them as equals whose ideas are valid and important. Now of course, I am there to mentor them and help them when they need it, but I do not use students to do mediocre tasks. In fact, I save all the interesting stuff for them, and do the boring stuff myself.

At this point, I answer some common questions about mentoring students. One thing I like to point out is that my process for working with undergraduate students is nearly the same as my process for working with graduate students, but their are difficulty differences. I start a graduate student off on a more difficult project than I would an undergraduate, but the fundamental process is the same.

Faculty Panel Q&A

  • How do you get the students up to speed to where they can contribute? How long does this take? What strategies do you use to make it faster? Is it worth it?

    This is a question I get often, because I have worked with a lot of students, some of whom have produced excellent results. First, it is important to realize that mentoring new research students takes time, but in my experience it pays off. Every undergraduate research assistant I hire must get a B or better in both of the following courses:

    • CSCI:3030 - Mathematical Structures in Computer Science
    • CSCI:3300 - Programming Languages Concepts

    These courses teach the basic background of my research area. Then I start them out with what is usually called a starter project. This is a research project that is a subpart of the overall project I want to work with the student on, but this starter project is a stand-alone component that will introduce the student to key concepts in the overall project that they can approach with nothing but the background acquired from their course work. Furthermore, it is important that this project be self contained – including writing and presenting – that way the student can decide early on whether research is right for them. Once the student has finished the starter project, I give them another more advanced project, and I keep iterating this process until they are confident enough to start generating their own ideas; but by this time, they are off to graduate school. This strategy is the most efficient one that I can think of, and gets the student thinking about research right away.

    Timeline wise, the starter project usually takes a semester or two. I try and hire students as early as possible usually in sophomore/junior year so that we have plenty of time to work together. Again, this takes time, but I think it is important not to rush students. I question questions about making things faster than this, because becoming a researcher takes time, and rushing it puts unfair pressures on an already pressured student. We do not want to push people away from research.

    Lastly, is it worth it? Personally, yes, it is! The most long-lasting contribution we can give to science is, after all, the students we mentor. They go on to graduate school, become researchers, and produce more results and more students. Even when it turns out that a student does not like research, I still think it is worth it, because that student learned something about themselves, and most likely learned a bit more about their field.

  • How do you recruit and/or decide which student(s) will work with you?

    I recruit through the courses I teach. If a student is doing well, then I ask them if they are interested in doing research, and we go from there. Other times, I have students seek me out for a research position, and then I meet with them, and discuss their interests. If I am looking for a single student, and I have more than one to consider, then I interview both students, and try and get a sense of their interests and background, and make a judgment call based on this information. But, this does not happen very often, because when I have two good students, I try and find the funding for both.

  • How do you handle personality challenges between students?

    Typically, all of my students work on their own self-contained subprojects of a larger project, but often they will need to discuss how their projects fit together, but I really do not see many issues regarding student-to-student interactions. I make sure to foster an inclusive environment that does not tolerate any type of harassment, and when hiring students I try and make sure they are willing to uphold this standard. I think making this clear prevents the problems from happening.

  • How do you run your research meetings (if you have them), and divvy up responsibilities?

    I have weekly research meetings with each of my students all of which are one-on-one. Since their projects are self contained I do not need to meet with a large group. During these meetings I first address any questions the student my have on their work, discuss the big picture, and set upcoming milestones. I ask my students to keep a detailed research journal that details meeting notes and milestones that way they are aware of everything that is needing done.

  • Have ever had to remove a student from your team and if so, how did you do so?

    Research is not for everyone, sometimes students do not work out. I have had to stop working with a student before, but largely it comes down to the student typically not wanting to do research. If a project is not progressing as one might expect, then I check in with the student to see if they are okay, and what might be the cause of the slow progress. More often than not its due to the student not enjoying research, and so we decide it is best for them to stop. Other times, there are larger issues that the student needs help with. It is important to always reach out to the student before becoming angry, because there is almost always a good reason.

  • Do you interview potential students? If so, what kinds of questions do you ask?

    I always meet with prospective research students, but rather than an interview, I use this meeting to discuss more about what research is, what area I work in, and their interests and longterm goals. This meeting also gives them an opportunity to ask me questions, because it is just as important for the student to get to know me as it is for me to get to know them.

  • What are your tips for publishing/presenting with students?

    • From the start let the student take the lead on their project, let them be first author, and have them write most of the paper, and present the results at a conference. If the student has to leave the project early or is not able to contribute enough to warrant first authorship, then this is adjusted as necessary. But, it is important to give them a chance to experience the entire process.

    • Have the student help with the review process by fixing problems the reviewers find, and preparing the rebuttal.

    • When gearing up for a conference presentation have the student present the entire presentation at least three times before going. Have them present in front of the department and in seminars to give them practice. This helps them get over the nerves of presenting.

  • What are some other difficulties you’ve had and how did you cope with them?

    The biggest hurtle is time. Students are busy with jobs, courses, families, friends, sports, etc. It is important to understand the time constraints put on students, and adjust expectations as necessary. I always discuss time with my students up front, and then revisit it every so often to make sure they are comfortable and not over doing it.

    It is also important to try and understand how the student likes to be mentored. Some students need more interaction with me than others, need additional meetings, or require feedback more often. Understanding how they like to be mentored makes them comfortable which makes doing research a lot easier. I tend to ask them questions to get an idea on how to better mentor them.

    I also think it is important to play to your students strengths. A student might be stronger in one area than another, and so if this can be capitalized on in their project, then the student will be more successful and enjoy it more.

    Finally, checkout the Helium podcast for early career researchers. I learned a lot from listening to it.

Student Panel Q&A

  • What do you look for in a potential research/scholarship student?

    Mainly, interest! Interest in the subject matter, and an interest to learn are the two best qualities in a research student. Secondly, the student needs to be comfortable working independently and have a good work ethic. Everything else I can teach them. Largely, undergraduate students do not know what research is before starting a research assistantship, and so I cannot really expect much more than this.

    That being said, I do require my research assistants to do well in their course work, especially the courses related to my research. This gives us both a foundation to build on. Furthermore, a research assistantship is extra on top of a student usual studies, and so making sure that they are in good standing – what I would call a B or above average in their major courses – ensures that they are not taking on too much.

  • What do you want students to get out of the experience?

    • The understanding of what research is.
    • More developed writing and presentation skills.
    • More refined learning skills.

    If they learn some cool math and computer science, then that is a bonus.

  • Why do you enjoy working with students outside of class? What do you get out of it?

    This is a particularly good question, and until now, I have not really had to utter out loud its answer. There are a number of things I get out of working with students:

    • Undergraduate research means a lot to me, because I would not be where I am without it, because I would not have found my love for research. When I was an undergraduate I was asked by one of my professors to work with them on undergraduate research. I got to pitch ideas of problems to solve, help solve them, write them up in a paper, and present our results at a conference. This changed my life! If I can give some one else this same experience, and change their life in a positive way, then it is all worth it!

    • Research is not a solo genius alone in a library solving the worlds problems, but research is a social and collaborative effort. I have my unique way of looking at the world, but all of you have your unique way of looking at the world. By coming together to do work on research we combine these unique perspectives, and thus, allows us to look at problems in different ways. This always leads to interesting and ground breaking work.

    • Impact! Students are the longest lasting impact a researcher can have on the field. We introduce students to research, they go off to graduate school and become full-blown researchers, and then generate more results and more students. All of our students will out last any of our papers.

    • Working with students helps us get more results, which is good for our career. In addition, working with students also allows us to get funding that can be used to fund students, but also other aspects of research like travel.

    • Finally, and this is the best kept professor secret, it is fun!! We enjoy it!

  • For you, how can students be better prepared to get started to work with you?

    For me, they should take and get a B or better in the courses related to my research:

    • CSCI:3030 Mathematical Structures in Computer Science
    • CSCI:3300 Programming Languages Concepts

    There are also other resources I can give students to help them, but they would need to come chat with me first.

  • What does research/ scholarship LOOK like with you?

    I start students off with what is usually called a starter project. This is a research project that is a subpart of the overall project I want to work with the student on, but this starter project is a stand-alone component that will introduce the student to key concepts in the overall project that they can approach with nothing but the background acquired from their course work. Furthermore, it is important that this project be self contained – including writing and presenting – that way the student can decide early on whether research is right for them. Once the student has finished the starter project, I give them another more advanced project, and I keep iterating this process until they are confident enough to start generating their own ideas; but by this time, they are off to graduate school. This strategy is the most efficient one that I can think of, and gets the student thinking about research right away.

    Timeline wise, the starter project usually takes a semester or two. I try and hire students as early as possible usually in sophomore/junior year so that we have plenty of time to work together. Again, this takes time, but I think it is important not to rush students.

  • How many hours do you expect students to work each week? (Min & Max?)

    The university sets the max at twenty hours per week during the semester. I do not set a minimum or a max, but they cannot exceed the twenty hours. I do this so that the student feels comfortable adjusting their time as more pressures are placed on them; e.g., course work, family, sports, etc. As long as the project is moving forward a specific amount of time is not necessary.

  • Do you interview potential students? If so, what kinds of questions might you ask?

    I always meet with prospective research students, but rather than an interview, I use this meeting to discuss more about what research is, what area I work in, and their interests and longterm goals. This meeting also gives them an opportunity to ask me questions, because it is just as important for the student to get to know me as it is for me to get to know them.

  • Do you hold team meetings? What happens during them and what kind of preparation is expected?

    I have weekly research meetings with each of my students all of which are one-on-one. Since their projects are self contained I do not need to meet with a large group. During these meetings I first address any questions the student my have on their work, discuss the big picture, and set upcoming milestones. I ask my students to keep a detailed research journal that details meeting notes and milestones that way they are aware of everything that is needing done.

    If the student is working on their project, then the only preparation I expect is for them the tell me how it is going, and ask questions.

    I also encourage my students to ask questions earlier rather than later, and if necessary schedule additional meetings. Throughout the week I try and check in with them, and see how it is going through email or Slack just to make sure there is not anything I can do.

  • Why would you encourage students to participate?

    I would encourage students to participate if they are interested in going to graduate school, interested in research, or are just interested in figuring out what research is and if they like it. But, I am also up front about things; for example, I would not encourage students to participate if they do not like writing or presenting, if those are things that they just cannot see themselves doing, then I doubt research would be good for them, and that is okay, because research is not for everyone.