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Mentoring Manual

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Guide for students

Many placement experiences will begin with receiving a list of technical documents to read.  Sometimes this can be handed to students with the phrase: “Here is a book, a PhD thesis, and several relevant journal articles.  These all describe the main research methods and, in particular, the equipment that you will be using this summer.  Please read them so that you have a good understanding of the project.  We will meet in a week to discuss what you have learned, and then decide the next steps.”

A couple of key points:

  1. You are being given a week because it should take at least that amount of time to read and understand the material.
  2. If you have never done this, then it may be intimidating and it is easy to spend a week reading, but gaining little knowledge. It is easy to get frustrated and get very little out of this activity.

It is typical in graduate school to receive such a reading list with a rather open ended assignment to complete them. If you have been enrolled in college courses with well-defined assignments, then such a task may seem overwhelming.

Your Responsibility: Request appropriate support, with knowledge of what you need, while also pushing yourself to read and understand the literature. To begin with it will be important to understand if you are the type of person who needs an overview before being able to explore details, or if you need detailed information before understanding the overview. Knowing this about how you work will help you ask for the appropriate help.

Mentor's Responsibility: Your mentor should help you focus your efforts on the most pertinent papers given your learning style and your mentor should make time available for you in those first few weeks for your questions.

The first key for reading literature is context.  If you do not have the context for what you are reading, it can be very difficult to know what to pay attention to and retain.  So when you start reading anything, make sure that you have the context for the document.

A few suggestions to begin:

  1. Ask for a suggestion on where to begin – e.g. what to start reading.  Specifically:
    1. Tell the mentor if you work best starting with an overview or with a more detailed issue.
    2. When they suggest a document to start with, ask them to put the document in the context of your specific research project, and if possible summarize the key points that you should get out of the document. For example: “this paper gives an overview of all the work in this area and I want you to understand why people consider this problem an important research question,” or “this paper describes the basic technique that you will be using to gather and analyze data, so I want you to note the key steps in the process of gathering data and then the process to analyze the data.” TAKE NOTES!!
  2. Ask to have a meeting in one or two days so that you can quickly get feedback on your progress and what you have learned. Bring a written summary of what you have learned.
  3. When reading technical papers you will likely need to read it multiple times to fully understand the material being presented. In graduate school, it is common to re-read a paper or parts of it several times over a year or two to fully understand what the authors have written.
    1. Start by reading the abstract, introduction and then conclusion.
      1. Write a bulleted list of the key points – why is the work being done and what are the main conclusions.
      2. Remember – the abstract should be an outline of the paper.  If the paper is well done, then an outline of the abstract will be an outline of the paper.
    2. Then go back and start at the beginning again. Read through once for basic understanding of how the information in the paper is organized, and in general what material is covered. Be careful to not get too frustrated if you do not understand every detail. One of your mentors (faculty, postdoc and or graduate student mentor) should be willing to discuss the paper with you to help you comprehend the key points of the paper.
      1. Use different color pens - one for concepts or phrases to look up or ask about, and one for concepts or points to remember.
      2. Fill in the outline that you started.
      3. Note in the outline where you have questions – write out the questions.
  4. When meeting with the graduate student/post-doc or faculty mentors.
    1. Prepare a list of:
      1. Key points that you learned.
      2. Questions you may have.


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