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Mentoring Manual

Working with undergraduate mentees

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Overcoming challenges of the first two weeks

The first two or three weeks of a field experience can be the hardest. While there may be long hours and hard work near the end of the program, the beginning can be the hardest because of all the adjustments to a new environment, student culture, and working in new ways that can challenge abilities from the first day.

Mentors: The beginning of a placement is the most critical time for your presence and attention. Designing a research experience where you assign a reading list and then head off to a conference or vacation for a week or two, can be disastrous for the student.

One common mistake is to not include the student in other work. During these first weeks, in particular the first two, it can be difficult for a new student to fill the time with work only on their own project. Have the student shadow other more experienced students for some of the time. In one case, most of the lab group and the faculty mentor left for one day to take some measurements, and left the new student behind to read background papers. The justification was that the measurements being taken were not directly pertinent to the student's project. Taking the student along, even in the role of observer, would have allowed the student to get a broader sense of the work, to feel part of the group, and potentially increased motivation and productivity upon returning to the lab.

As mentors it is important not underestimate the impact of a student’s motivation to work as compared to spending time working. An unenthusiastic student spending lots of time in the lab can accomplish much less than a motivated student who is spending less time in the lab, but is excited and engaged when in the lab.

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Mentoring underrepresented minority students

“Underrepresented students need to establish a network of 'classical mentors' and identify strategies to establish these vital reciprocal relationships throughout their careers in STEM.”

- Mark Hernandez, Professor, Chemical Engineering, University of Colorado, Boulder, Director, Colorado Diversity Initiative

The following facts were presented in the National Academy of Sciences titles Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America's Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads, published in 2010 (PDF summary here). The report provides references to published literature supporting each of these findings. To understand and better address diversity in your programs see “The Road to Diversity: Are We There Yet?” This article talks about the importance of role models and mentoring as well as the need for producing a diverse population of scientists.

Review this information. It will guide you in the critical role you play as a faculty member, graduate student, or post-doc mentor. As you mentor, be very conscious of your role which goes far beyond helping the student have a successful placement.


  • Summer internships provide exposure to STEM careers – the exposure must provide information, create awareness, and ignite a passion for science (pg 81)

Build confidence to take on challenge

  • “Much of the research has focused on ways to address issues of student motivation and confidence, as the challenges are likely to incorporate psychosocial factors beyond simple questions of access and opportunity.” (pg 105)
  • “Thus one of the key ideas has been to enhance student’s confidence in their own abilities. This helps students turn the difficulties that students will have to overcome into challenges rather than threats.” (pg 105)
  •  Steering underrepresented students into less demanding courses and programs can be counterproductive when students should be challenged by encouraging them to take the highest level courses for which they are prepared (pg 81).

Dr. Betty Neal Crutcher provides useful perspectives on difference and circumstance within the mentoring experience in her article Cross-Cultural Mentoring: A Pathway to Making Excellence Inclusive.

Equal Access: Inclusive Strategies for Teaching Students with Disabilities (Case Study 3) demonstrates inclusive strategies for recruiting and retaining students with disabilities and women students (with particular emphasis on improving and increasing communication).  This document, and others like it, is from the National Center for Women and Information Technology: Promising Practices.

* Additional content in process.

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Normalizing expectations

Expectations can help lead a student to success or failure. Expectations are a potentially powerful force to motivate, but also can be a barrier to success. One critical role for a mentor is to help a student maintain healthy expectations.

Set goals but be encouraging and supportive: “You have worked hard, but unfortunately the results of this experiment have not been good. I know this is frustrating, and something that we all face sometimes in this field. I want you to know that you have done good work. I myself find it easier to persevere when I focus on the good work that I have done and not just on the final results. Based on your work so far, I'm confident that your experiment will be successful. Let's take some time to analyze what you did and your results and see if we can identify some next steps to get you there.”

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Productive meetings

A productive meeting is often defined based upon expected outcomes and sometimes unanticipated events, such as break-through ideas for the work or an unintended discussion about professional or personal development.

A productive meeting begins with planning. It is good to have an agreed upon agenda for each meeting. The agenda can be a formal or merely a list of key discussion topics.

It can be helpful prior to discussing a topic to clarify the desired outcome of the discussion. One mentor reflects:


"In the past I have had a mentee come in and start talking about something and I immediately start interrupting and having the discussion focus on something that I see wrong in their initial statements. I think that they have thought through everything they are talking about, but often they have actually just started thinking about their ideas and just wanted me to hear the whole concept and respond. Hearing the mentee’s goals before hearing the information would have resulted in a good meeting rather than the one we had that was frustrating for both of us."

- Dr. J. Adin Mann, M.E., faculty mentor, Iowa State University

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Making explicit the expectations for all

Years ago when I first started taking on summer interns and grad students, I decided it was important to be clear not only about what I expected from them, but also what they could expect of me. In the case of my lab, there are usually several grant related projects under way, and 2-3 grad students working on aspects of those projects, as well as 2-3 undergrad interns. There is a fair amount of scuba diving and work on boats, so safety is a huge priority. So, my initial meeting with my students - grad students and undergrads - distills into the following... What you (student) can expect of me: 1.) Safety - Create a safe working env't Scientific leadership. 2.) Provide the research direction and focus, and priorities for the lab. 3.) Create supportive educational environment - The focus is on problem solving. Individual meetings with students on their projects are made as needed. Weekly lab meetings are a center piece of my lab to discuss issues arising: project progress reports and to discuss recent literature on the topic. A student will usually take the lead on discussing a recent publication that has been circulated to others earlier in the week. 4.) Be available - I have an open door policy, when I'm at the lab/office. Although I have multiple obligations pulling me in different directions - I am just an email or phone call away if it must be addressed immediately. What I expect of you: 1.) Be Safe - follow safety protocols established in initial training. 2.) Be a team player - Because much of the work depends on having 2-5 people in the field, it's important to do your part. Students may be working on independent projects, but depend on help from others to get it done. That's why we spend a fair amount of time planning out a strategy each week. The phrase "Many hands make light work" applies. 3.) Timeliness - Because we're depending on each other's support, it's important to be on time and dependable. 4.) Communication - We can't resolve problems if we don't know about them. This is part of doing science. Bring them up at lab meetings or in one-on-one meetings. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. That too is part of doing science.
- Richard A. Wahle, Ph.D. Research Associate Professor School of Marine Sciences University of Maine Darling Marine Center

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A guide to meetings for mentors

Help a student plan for their meeting with a faculty member. You probably know a faculty member's preferred meeting style. Maybe he / she likes to just focus on the issues, socialize and then focus on the work, or focus on the work and then socialize. If you do not know – here is a chance to think about it – that may help you in your own meetings! Consider talking to your faculty mentor about this, in the context of helping the student. This may be more comfortable for everyone involved.

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While it is good to have questions, there are badly asked questions. It is important to keep in mind that how a question is posed provides an impression of the person asking the question. It is critical for the student to provide information so that mentors have an accurate impression of a student's work ethic and efforts. Further, answering a question provides an excellent mentoring opportunity. A well-asked question gives the mentor insight into the student’s thinking and work processes and opens up the potential for a valuable conversation. The mentor can focus on answering key points and often has an opportunity to spend additional time discussing the work or related topics.

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Meeting with a student: extended benefits

Meeting with a student can do much more than just move the work forward.

Mentors can help build the student's self-confidence.  This can be accomplished by something as simple as giving time and expecting excellence from the student.

One former student talked about her experience in meeting with her mentor.  This former REU student, who did not come from a family with STEM professionals, remembered meeting with a mentor as a key experience of the REU program and how it helped prepare her for her professional career.  These meetings helped build student skills and confidence as well as simultaneously providing experience talking to a STEM professional about general career development questions.

Key points:

  • Expect the student to explain their work and use appropriate/professional language.
    • Listen and expect the student to explain his or her work.
    • The student may need help describing their work with sufficient detail using formal descriptive language.
    • Model how the student should describe her / his work, then have the student describe the work.
    • Maintain high standards for how students describe their work.
  • The experience of talking to faculty and learning to communicate on a professional level is important.
    • Communicating with a faculty mentor on a professional level during a field placement is different than asking questions in class or during office hours.
    • The experience of talking professionally to a faculty member builds students' self-confidence
  • Just talking can have an impact.
    • Once done with the discussion of the project, talk about the student's professional plans. Students remember and value these discussions.

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Questions: key points for mentors

Things to remember about student inquiry:
  • Help the student learn how to ask a question.
  • After the student asks a question, indicate how the way that they asked the question may impact your impression of their work ethic or effort.
  • Help a student rephrase a question.
  • Coach a student on how to ask the faculty mentor questions.
  • Students often have more knowledge and have done more background work than they are indicating. You may need to take some time to draw out what they know and help them create a better question – all before answering their question.

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Examples of good and bad questions

Example 1


Bad Question:

“I just don't understand this at all.  Where do I start?”


  • While this may communicate your current frustration, it likely does not communicate your understanding or where you need help.
  • This may leave the impression with the mentor that you are not working, particularly if you do not provide evidence that demonstrates that you have completed the background work necessary to be prepared to start the project.
  • This type of statement tends to put the burden on the mentor for your work. Mentors generally expect you to take ownership of the project.


Good Question:

“I read the two articles that you gave me, and what I currently understand is …. However, I am still not sure how to get started on the … that you asked me to do next. Is there something that I am missing from my reading of the two articles or can you help me make a connection between the two articles and the … that you asked me to do? I am hoping that this will help me understand how to get started on the task”


  • This question shows what you do understand, that you have done your work, and that you are taking responsibility for starting the work. You just want some help getting past the initial barrier of getting started. An experienced mentor can hear what you understand and help you develop a path to what you need to understand to get started.
  • This will leave a mentor impressed with you initiative and your commitment to do the work.  You have communicated clear ownership of your work. 

Example 2


Bad Question:

“I did what you said and the equipment does not work.  What is wrong?”

  • It is not clear if you actually did what the mentor said should be done with the equipment.
  • There is no sense that you have tried to diagnose the problem.
  • It is not clear that you are taking initiative.
  • It may sound like you are working through a list of actions (cookbook style work) without interest or effort to understand the reasons behind the steps.


Good Question:

“I am having difficulties using the equipment to get the results. Can I tell you the steps that I took and then share some ideas that I have for why it is not working? I hope that you can verify my understanding of the equipment, see if my ideas for the cause of the problem and how to fix it are reasonable, and give additional ideas that I can then investigate.”

  • You are being specific and focused on understanding not just actions.
  • The mentor will get to hear what you have understood and where additional clarification is needed.  (i.e. The mentor does not have to start from the beginning or guess where you are having difficulties.) 


Example 3

Bad Question:

“I wrote this program and it does not work.  Can you find the error?”

  • “Writing a program” includes the effort involved to get the program to run properly – to someone experienced in programming, you are communicating that you are not willing to make the necessary effort.
  • It is not clear that you knew what steps you took to make the effort when you wrote the program.
  • This can communicate a poor work ethic.


Good Question:

“I have written a program to implement these equations.  Currently the program is not working.  I would like to walk through the logic in the program and the ways that I have tried to find errors in the program.  Can you see if there are errors in my logic and help me think of additional ideas for finding errors in the program?”

  • You are giving all the information that you have.
  • You have indicated that you want to find the errors, and primarily want help in understanding the appropriate steps to take.
  • You are taking the initiative and ownership of the program and the process of getting it to work.
  • It is clear that you want to know how the program works.  This gives the mentor the confidence to follow up and ask you to expand the program if appropriate for the research.
  • You are demonstrating that as a student, the process of learning how to accomplish the work is as critical as accomplishing the task.


Example 4


Bad Question:

“I have tried to derive the equations, but can’t get the math to work.  Can you find my error?”


Good Question:

“I have been working on deriving the equations that we discussed at the last meeting.  I have worked through the derivation in two different ways, but they give different results.  Both methods are based on books that I found in the library.  I would like to show you both methods and hope that you can help identify errors in my logic, and ask you to suggest any other references that I can review for additional information.”

  • You are taking ownership of the work – you want help to identify the methods to find the problem in the derivation, not have someone else do the derivation for you.
  • You have indicated that you have done extensive work before asking this question.


Example 5


Bad Question:

“I am so frustrated with this not working and don’t see the point of this.  Tell me again why I need to do this?”

  • This communicates that you were not listening the first time.
  • It is not clear that you respect the experience of the mentor to know how the research should proceed.


Good Question:

“The experiment is not working well, and I am getting very frustrated.  I need to step back and make sure that I understand why this experiment is important and what I should be learning from it.  Then I think I can approach the experiment again with renewed clarity.  Can I explain my understanding so that you can correct or add to my current understanding?  If you have other suggestions, such as putting this aside for example while I work on the computer program, I would appreciate your advice.”

  • This shows that you are taking responsibility for your frustration and have developed a strategy to cope with the situation.
  • You are willing to explain your understanding, so that the mentor can focus on any error in your understanding and confirm what you do understand.
    • It can be very encouraging for both the mentor and student to recognize that you do understand significant portions of the work.
  • You are open to additional suggestions on strategies to deal with your frustration. It is likely that the mentor will also give you examples, personal anecdotal experiences, of when they have coped with similar frustrations.

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Calibrate your mentoring to match the mentee

Each student as well as each mentor is unique. Some students are comfortable with autonomy and others want reassurance. Further, some mentors want to be very involved in a student’s experience with multiple informal and formal meetings a week, and some mentors are satisfied with very little contact, sometimes only three to four meeting during the entire field placement experience.

Be careful to not treat an undergraduate student like a graduate student. A graduate student is on a 2-6 year “apprenticeship”, so they have time to understand and adapt to a mentor’s style. If the graduate student needs additional support, they have time to develop support networks. A summer student, typically on an 8-10 week field placement, does not have the time to make such adjustments.

It may be interesting to note that at many companies, a 6 month internship is considered the minimum amount of time. Commonly, the first month or two is considered the training period. So both the intern and mentor expect the final 4 months to be rewarding for both participants. Compare that to a common summer research experience of 8-10 weeks.

There are multiple styles of mentoring. Some faculty members have been known to say: “I was not expected to meet with my mentor more than once a semester, so a student needing more than that is not appropriate.” Other faculty state: “I want to work in collaboration with the student, so I want to be involved in all their work so that it is all done correctly.” A student working with the first faculty member may languish because of insufficient mentoring while the second student suffers because of a faculty member with an intrusive mentoring style, who never lets the student learn from her own mistakes or gain confidence from her own accomplishments. Students and mentors may fail when expectations and desired mentoring patterns are not well matched or appropriately adjusted.

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About research

The central component of a summer research placement is, of course, the research. For many students, this may be their first exposure to a research project outside of their course work. Thus, based on this experience students may make very broad judgments about what research is and their future interest in research. It is important to keep two things in mind:

  1. Normalize how they will be performing research for you compares to all the possible forms of research.
  2. Talk to the student about how she or he experience each activity.

The following assumes that your goal for a field placement program is for the student to find their niche in research, so that they have a vision and motivation to pursue their next steps in developing their research career. A goal is to help the student separate their interest in the topic from their interest in research. Motivation in both is needed, but a student can choose to not pursue a research career on topics that they have great interest in, if their experience of the research process turns them off from research.


Place the research that the student is performing with you and the research of the graduate students and post-docs in your research group within the context of the continuum of research approaches. While a commonly taught systematic model of research consists of performing background study, posing and then testing research questions, there are many research projects which do not follow a path confined to such a linear model. If your work fits a particular model, and it is a model that the student is comfortable with, then all should proceed well. However, if there is a mismatch between your research model and the model preferred by the student, then it can be difficult for the student. More work may be needed for the student to see the work within the context of possible research approaches. In such a situation, the student may love the subject, but then need to learn that there are other options available to approach the research.

In general, the research continuum ranges from research that only starts with a very well defined research question to research that has a very well defined topic but is seeking the research question(s). For example – consider the same issue – improving the ability to predict the vibration of pipe walls just down-stream of a control valve:

  1. It is hypothesized that modeling the dynamic pressure using a κ-ε model in addition to the acoustic pressure just down stream of a valve will improve the accuracy of the pipe wall vibration predictions.
  2. Temporal and spatial analysis of the measured pressure down stream of a control valve will be used to identify the contributions of the acoustic and dynamic pressures in order to determine their relative contribution to the pipe wall vibration.

Approach 1 is a traditional hypothesis driven research model while approach 2 is more of an open ended exploration of the system in order to determine the next steps. While the project in your research may take one of these approaches, be sure to assess the student’s comfort with, and interest in, this style and also discuss other approaches to the same research problem.

Talk with the student

Even though a student is performing very well, he or she may not be enjoying the work – the student may not be interested in your research area and/or his or her interest in research generally may be dissipating. During your meetings with the student, always ask what he or she is experiencing. From the beginning, it is important to create an atmosphere where the student feels comfortable and can be honest with you. Make sure the student knows that he or she can dislike aspects or all of the work, but still respect you and you them. It is critical to be able to have honest discussions of what they experience and then work on normalizing their experience.

If the student did great work, but for example, is finding the hypothesis driven work not interesting and would prefer more freedom to explore, talk to the student about how this is or is not possible in your field. This is important information for the students. If the student does not like exploratory work with no definitive pre-defined outcome or hypothesis, then talk about how others in your field are doing hypothesis driven research. If the student likes your research style, but does not find the topic interesting (or motivating), explore other interests. Help your mentee identify alternative research areas and how being successful with you can lead to getting into a different area better suited to him or her.

The most difficult part for most mentors in this situation is to avoid taking the student’s comments personally. It is important to keep this in context. You are an accomplished researcher and they are exploring. Focus on helping the student to understand their experience. It is important for the student to learn how to express constructive criticism. The student will likely respect your professional advice and commitment if they are able to candidly express their feelings about the work and then have a discussion with you that helps them explore other opportunities and options that are of more interest to them. In the discussions with the student, endeavor to keep focused on their developmental needs. If they inappropriately express their dislike of the work, help them think of a more productive way to deliver that message.

Consider the following exchange:

Mentor: Greg, you did very good work this week and have good plans for the work during the next week. I was impressed with your interest in the research topic and the way that we do research in this group.

Mentee: To be honest, I hate having to follow these detailed rules. I am just doing it, but glad that you think the work is good. It looks to like this is all that the grad students do. If this is grad school, then it’s not for me.

Mentor: I want to talk to you more about this, and am glad that you let me know how you feel. However, first I would like to talk about ways for you to communicate the same information. It seems that the key points for you are (1) you see the work as only following a set of procedures and (2) you view graduate school as the same work. Are those the main points?

Mentee: Sure

Mentor: Those are good points, but here is how I would suggest that you describe them. “I am glad that my work is good. I am finding the work difficult to enjoy because I feel like I am just following a set of directions. There does not seem to be any creativity in the work. From what I see of the graduate students’ work, it seems that they are doing the same work. It is difficult for me to be motivated for graduate school if my perception is correct. Is this how the rest of my placement will be, and what going to graduate school will be like?”

Mentee: Wow, I hope that I didn’t come across as stupid the way I first said it. How you phrased is it closer to what I was thinking.

Mentor: No problem. Part of the goal for this program is for you to gain more experience in professional communication. I certainly talk to my colleagues differently than I do with many of my closest friends. So, how about if you rephrase your first comment, and then we can discuss your concerns and observations. These are similar issues that I had to face when I was a student….

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Socializing is a critical part of the experience – it contributes to or greatly impacts the bonds between colleagues who will work hard together, help each other, and then maintain contact after graduating. For an undergraduate, this can be a critical time to develop insight into the life of a graduate student and faculty member. It also provides times for students to receive informal mentoring on their professional development. Some of the best discussions initiated by a student about his or her future plans may happen when walking to get a cup of coffee.

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E-mail standards for communicating with mentees

E-mail is a professional communication tool.  So an e-mail should be written in a formal language.  Consider an e-mail to be a memo.  Content should follow some basic rules:

  • Address the person in agreed terms.  Always err on the side of formality.
  • Provide sufficient detail.
  • Separate information from a request.
  • Provide your justification for the request.
  • Compose the e-mail so that a single response from the recipient will address your request. If you want to meet, include your available times. If you do not do this the mentor will have to e-mail you back with their available times and then you respond.
  • Do not expect a professional e-mail in response.


NO:  Hey Dr. M – I got some slick results today and want to talk.

YES:  Dr. Mann,

     The experiments today were successful.  We were able to get results and based on my initial analysis, they appear to be in the range that we expected but are also surprising.

     I would like to meet with you briefly, 15 minutes, to show you the results, tell you my plans, and get some initial feedback from you regarding my interpretation of the results and my next steps. I would like to adjust my work plans before our regular weekly meeting since these new results are motivating me to consider a different approach

    Today I will be in the lab from 1-5 and then tomorrow morning from 8-11.  (note: there is a workshop on applying to graduate school starting at 11 tomorrow and then some lab tours the rest of the afternoon.)  Please let me know what time will work best for you.

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Student communication with mentors and faculty

In general, the following is recommended:

Use e-mail for:

  • Sending a document or information for review.
  • Quick communication – e.g. scheduling a meeting.

Use phone for:

  • Clarification to follow up a previous discussion or e-mail.
  • An issue that needs to be resolved that may be difficult, but there is no time for a face-to-face meeting.

Face-to-face interaction:

  • Always preferred – this provides an opportunity for details to be shared and discussed as well as additional follow-up conversations.
Social media, e-mail, texting, are all very convenient, but also fraught with danger: misunderstandings resulting from not communicating clearly an accurate sense of mood. Conversely, there are times, when a well composed e-mail can be much more constructive than having a face-to-face meeting when frustration about the work progress or having pressures from outside of the program work is dominating a person’s thoughts. So consider the purpose of the interaction and your mood.

Remember, that with any electronic communication it is best to assume that the intended person has not received it until there is confirmation. Similarly, when you receive electronic communication, respond as quickly as possible, even if only to indicate that the communication was received and to provide a time line for when you plan to act on it.

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When to let them struggle, when to help

Balancing challenge and support is critical to a successful placement experience for a student. In general, the goal is for students to accomplishment as much as possible on their own. Thus the goal is for you as a mentor to balance challenge and support of the student, in essence, decide when it is OK for the student to struggle and when to help.

With too much challenge the student can feel overwhelmed and their self-confidence can suffer and with insufficient challenge a student can experience the work as boring and not perform to their full potential. With too much support the student may never develop their own abilities or self-confidence in their own abilities and with insufficient support the student may not be able to overcome hurdles and may not find out what they are capable of.

One challenge as a mentor is that each student is unique and requires a different level of challenge and support.

Before the beginning of the program, the faculty and graduate student mentoring team should have a conversation about challenge and support. Each can talk about their own experiences and what was a good balance for them. This can be a good practice for having the same conversation with the new students. Note how the best combination of challenge and support for each of you has changed over time, not just as we gain knowledge, but also as you gained work experience and self-confidence.

At the beginning of the program, have a direct conversation with each student about the level of challenge and support that they have had in the past. Ask the student to talk about what was successful. Also talk about your own experience with challenge, and what was successful for you. Comment on how you and the student are similar or different. Ask that students provide feedback during their placement regarding the level of challenge and support that they are receiving.

When assessing challenge and support break both down into (1) background knowledge, (2) intellectual abilities, (3) self-confidence, and (4) resources. During a placement, all of these can be impacted by your actions. Classifying the issue of challenge and support into each of these areas can help the mentors and students determine appropriate action. This can also help the student avoid over generalizing the difficulties that they are having. For example, if resources are determined to be the issue, then you can focus on lining up the appropriate resources, or modifying the activities. Further, if it is resources, but the student is not sure why the work is not going well and their self-confidence is being eroded, then identifying resources as the issue can help them regain their self-confidence.

If the issue is background knowledge, then provide references, topic specific tutoring, and other support. Talk to the student about if they should have the background knowledge. It may have been quite reasonable that they did not have the background. If that is the case, then they may feel better about the education that they are receiving. When the issue is self-confidence, the appropriate action is much more difficult to determine. Sometimes, starting with frequent interactions to provide feedback on the quality of the work can help and then reducing these frequent interactions can then help the student to build self-confidence.

The faculty and graduate student mentors should work as a team to assess their efforts to challenge and support the student. Also consider getting outside advice from the student’s mentor at his/her home institution or other colleagues.

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Handling family and other personal emergencies

“I think we often forget that each of our cultures: as a Black person, Hispanic, Native American or Asian, may affect our thinking and responsibility to our family as well as our passion for our work.  I think we need to do a better job of acquainting our leaders/mentors with these cultural differences in our students.  Some may say that this is not needed, but an appreciation of one’s family life and upbringing can add to the respect and credibility of the mentor as well as the student.”
-- Larry Campbell, Colonel, US Army (Retired), Program Director, Opt Ed, AGEP, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Personal and family emergencies can happen during a placement. It is critical for everyone to be in communication as early as possible when this situation arises. The section on personal counseling should be reviewed. There are instances when an emergency can make decisions difficult, and personal counseling can provide assistance with making decisions. Assistance may be needed to determine how best to handle the situation. Before you decide on an action, be sure that the situation is clear to all parties concerned.

Students: Mentors are usually reasonable and almost all have experienced personal and/or family emergencies themselves. Describe the situation clearly articulating what it means to you. The mentor may not have had a similar experience with her or his family situation, so may not relate to the specific situation, but will likely try their best connect to how you experience the situation.

Be prepared to consider the consequence of your action on the research progress of your summer placement. There are emergencies that require your absence from the placement and most mentors will work with you to help you get the most from your field experience. However, keep in mind that this is a unique opportunity, one that can lead to recommendations that will help advance you into your next career move (fellowships, graduate school, job, etc.). You want to handle this as professionally as possible.

Mentors: You may need assistance in determining if a student is making the best decision. Seek advice after you understand the situation. If the student’s decision puts the research progress at risk, be sure to make this clear and discuss the potential consequences with the student. Work with program staff to ensure that the student is getting needed support and that staff are aware of the discussions and decisions that you have made with the student. A meeting with a student when she/he is considering how to react can take several hours. Your patience and professional guidance can play a critical role, modeling how they might make decisions in the future.

Consult with student support service professionals such as the Dean of Students' Office or Student Counseling Service. They have extensive experience and advice that can assist you in the process of providing help. You are the expert in research; they are the experts in professional counseling for students.

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How to handle your schedule

For many students, this can be the first experience with an open-ended research question and a flexible work environment. A lab environment with positive role models along with specific discussions about schedules may help. However, in a lab environment without positive role models, it is important for the students to be confident and positive in their own abilities to get the work done and deal with the challenges of life.

Since many placements are relatively short – eight to ten weeks – they may not afford the luxury of a semester where one might be able to procrastinate and cram for exams. While lab groups can get into these habits of working long hours to accomplish work for a report or conference, modeling the consistent and well-organized work habits of a full time job can provide a clearer structure and norms for the student to work within.

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Requests for time off

Many laboratory environments focus on accomplishing goals rather than counting work hours. Time is considered flexible, ranging from ‘everyone should always be in the lab’, to ‘just get the work done’. However, there are many examples of a student believing that the faculty mentor is fine with a flexible schedule, but then finding out that the flexibility that the student is exhibiting is making the faculty member uneasy and creating doubt regarding the student’s commitment to the work.

Generally, for field placements, it is expected that students will focus primarily and intensively on the fieldwork and that is why the program personnel have set aside time for this program. Do not go into the placement with an expectation that you can leave on a Wednesday or Thursday to have a long weekend at home, with friends, etc.

The key for all parties to remember is that many placements are extremely short (eight to ten weeks, one semester). There is little opportunity for flexible time while also accomplishing significant work during this period.

Students: Plan to ask for time off within the confines of accomplishing the research goals. When requesting time off, always explain how the work will be accomplished. Heading out on Friday afternoon to travel with some friends or fellow students, is generally not a wise choice. If you do decide to take time off, make the request as far in advance as possible. Include your mentor in the decision of whether or when to take the time off. Do not present it as a done deal because this sets up a situation where if the mentor says no then they are ruining your plans.

Also consider that many faculty members have hectic research schedules themselves. It is not uncommon for them to be called out of town for a one to three day business trip, or to suddenly have a day filled with meetings. This may get in the way of your plans to coordinate a trip and meet with your mentor. Again, your primary concern and commitment should be to your successful completion of your placement—this is an important part of your career advancement.

Graduate student mentors: Review your schedule and how you take time off before the new student arrives. If you take off on an afternoon with good wind to sail or wind surf at a local lake, talk to the faculty mentor about how to handle this with the student(s) you are supervising.

Be clear about your expectations for taking time off. Make sure and set a good example yourself. Give examples of the type of activities that you have approved for students to take time off from the work schedule. Establish an expectation of how you will be involved in the decisions that the student makes to take time off. In general, it is best to err on the side of having the student involve you in the decision as early as possible. While you may see this as overbearing and not allowing students the independence they need, a worse situation is if you get annoyed or inconvenienced. Again, for many students, this may be their first experience of being in a professional scientific/engineering work environment and they may need assistance with establishing professional behavior.

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Scheduling: guide for mentors

Being unstructured or flexible with time expectations can be difficult for a student. Provide some structure at the beginning. This may also require asking for structure from yourself and others in the lab. In an 8-10 week placement, with the first week or two focused on reading literature, it is very easy for time to slip and for the placement to be wrapping up with the student and mentoring team scrambling to get something accomplished.

One of your key roles as a mentor is to help the student develop work habits for the professional research laboratory. Talk to the student about the use of work time. Not just total time, but what they are doing during work time. After a student describes their day or week of work, reflect on what you thought they did well. Identify work habits that need to change. If possible, relate to the student and provide a personal experience that allows you to demonstrate how you changed an unproductive work habit.

For example, if a student is sitting all day trying to read articles, describe how you initially did this when you were starting out:

"I found that spending less time per article with time to talk to others in the lab about their work, or asking for lab work between articles, helped me focus on the reading. I also found that I could not spend more than two hours reading articles, before needing do another task, even if for 30 minutes."

- Dr. J. Adin Mann, M.E., faculty mentor, Iowa State University

Talk to the graduate students in the lab and ask them to stagger working time with the new student and/or allow the student to look over their shoulder as a means to get a break from studying articles.

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