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Mentoring Manual


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Identifying and addressing ongoing challenges

IBP offers several tools to assist directors, including a guide to recruitment strategies , a template for drafting a recruitment plan as well as one for assisting with a retention plan . Each of these can be easily adapted to individual programs or used to enhance approaches, especially in trying to make the most of conference participation with an eye to recruitment. Additionally, IBP's guide for writing diversity plans into proposals can be found here.  These resources and others can be found on the Pathways to Science Faculty link in the Resource Toolbox.

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Role in a mentoring conflict

Directors can play both a direct and indirect role in helping resolve dissatisfaction in mentoring relationships.

Early in an REU program, for example, a student may come to you stating that the match will not work and she or he wants a different mentor. The risk of this can be reduced by promoting contact between the mentor and student before the placement begins. However, once faced with it, a quick assessment of the core issues is needed. Start by asking the student to explain his/her concerns. Part of your role is to help the student learn how to articulate problems professionally. If the student is not able to clearly express concerns, then make some suggestions. Help the student identify and label the issues. For example problems may be related to the project, the faculty mentor, the grad mentor, communication, the work environment or language.

Without offering a solution, first restate the issues so that the two of you can agree on the key points. If the student is not expressing him or herself in a professional manner, then help generate a professional description of the issue. Whatever the two of you conclude, make sure that the student also restates the more professional form. For example, a student may say, “I just have no interest in the project, it seems really boring, and I can’t understand a thing that my grad student mentor is saying.” Help the student define what aspect of the work she or he finds boring, and what part seemed interesting when they accepted the placement. For example, restating this in the form: “When I corresponded with my faculty mentor about the project, the relationship to acoustics was interesting since I like stereo systems. However, now that I see the work, much of the focus is not related to musical acoustics and designing loudspeakers. At this point, I need help understanding how the work relates to future opportunities for my career. Also, in the initial discussions with my grad student mentor, we had to work hard to communicate. It is not easy for me to understand some of the terminology he uses. Combining this with a topic that I don’t understand is making it very difficult to have a discussion.” In this case, you have also helped the student focus his concerns which suggests possible avenues for fixing the situation.

If there is a true conflict then you may need to intervene. Now the issue is what sort of working relationship you have with your colleagues. For example, imagine a student enthusiastically starting the placement, but then the lab has an equipment failure that makes the planned project impossible for the summer. If the faculty member responds by giving the student readings instead of field or research work the student may have a very reasonable grievance. At this point, you can work with the mentor on how to proceed. If the faculty member does not have the time to develop a new project for the student, then it may be best to find a different faculty member willing and able to work with the student during the remaining time in the placement.

As the director, you will need to take responsibility for have the student’s successful placement experience.

If the student is contributing to the problem, for example missing meetings, not working sufficient hours, not following laboratory procedures, not talking to others in the lab in a respectful manner, then as director, you may need to follow up and take action.

In general, you are in the weakest position if you enter a conversation with a student having only heard second-hand information about his or her performance. It is important to create mechanisms from the beginning of your program that serve the functions needed for both the research process as well as for monitoring individual and team progress. For example, require weekly meetings with the student and ask the student to prepare a written summary for the meeting. This is not only good for the meeting, but also provides you with information on performance. Require that mentors provide written feedback after the meeting. Again, this would clearly document the meeting outcomes for the student and for the faculty, grad students and post doc participants.

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Mentor while traveling

A traveling mentor is one of the main complaints from students in field placements. These students want the time and attention from a professional with the accomplishments of a faculty member. Traveling, however, does not need to be a problem. If you can establish sufficient support for the student, establish a strong mentoring relationship before traveling, and remain in contact through electronic means to provide mentoring, then the problems created by your absence can be substantially reduced. Remember, providing sufficient support for the students to accomplish the planned research is a minimum requirement, but not mentoring. Mentoring is the time and attention that you provide the student to assist with their intellectual and professional development. Consider not traveling at the beginning of the placement. This can be a critical time for the mentoring relationship. Significant face-to-face time during this initial period is critical. After the first 2-3 weeks, then your physical absence can be partially replaced with electronic presence. All the comments below, assume that you have established a mentoring relationship before traveling. Here are some ideas for communicating when you travel:

  • Request a weekly document providing updates on the research progress. Make this consistent with what you ask for when you are not traveling.
  • Request that the student send any exciting results or insights as soon as possible. Do not let them wait to engage you in results that they consider important.

Establish an electronic communication means – e-mail, text, facebook. Communicate ahead of time, the frequency that you will check for their communication

  • Make it clear if and when they can call you on your cell phone. If something will take extensive discussion, state that and defer the discussion until you have returned.

If you have a graduate student serving as a mentor for the student, set up a similar communication system and expectation with the graduate student regarding the mentoring. NOTE – you can have this communication with the graduate student focus on just the mentoring since you would expect the graduate students to make progress on their own research without contact with you during your travels.

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Staffing changes/additions/deletions, Professional Development

If faculty or administrators know they are going to be leaving their post, but are mentoring students, they should do what they can to make certain the students receive the needed guidance before they leave. Coordination with administrators and other faculty can smooth the transition to a new mentor for any affected students. Graduate students may be especially vulnerable to this.

* Additional content in process

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Partnering with division of student affairs

Your colleagues in the division of Student Affairs are trained to work with issues regarding student development. In cases of conflict and misbehavior, consider your colleagues in the division of Student Affairs an important resource. In some cases, you can consult them and they can provide you with advice and in other cases they may work directly with the students.

Develop a working relationship with them before your program begins. It is hard to develop a working relationship in a crisis, so make sure that you already have the connections in the event of a crisis.. Your colleagues in the division of Student Affairs can also be wonderful consultants on student development and provide basic mentoring advice.

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Sexual harassment

Review your campus' harassment policy. Be sure to clarify who is in a supervisory role. For example, if a university requires that a supervisor take action when a supervisee brings up concerns of harassment, then doing nothing is a violation of that policy. If the graduate student mentor is supervising the undergrad then that graduate student needs to know the policy and may need orientation and guidance in preparation for mentoring students.

Some campuses have a system/office in place (e.g. an ombudsperson) that can be consulted anonymously. Questions can be answered and directions provided regarding potential steps for a person to take in the event of this kind of concern. These people are resources, not only for a student but also for mentors who need to consider the action that they need to take.

If your school does not have easily accessible information on sexual harassment, The University of Iowa provides an excellent easy to access online resource that is available to everyone, and could supplement your school's established policies.

Harassment can occur within the research group and also within the student group.

Faculty: If there is a marked change in how a student and a graduate mentor or other students in the research group interact with each other, consider that this is a situation that you need to investigate. For example, if a graduate student has made an overture to date a student they are mentoring, while the student may have said no, the situation may have resulted in making the student uncomfortable. In such a case, the situation may need to be addressed for both the student and the grad student. It may necessitate changing mentors. In addition, it may be a ‘teachable moment’ for the graduate student on how they may have violated the harassment policy.

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Mixed age range of REU participants

Creating community among the students must be done carefully when there is a large age range among the students. If an undergraduate program takes place at the same time as a program for high school students, then the directors must take care to arrange for different levels of supervision and advising. Further, even among college students, the age range can be large, and depending on the state laws, you may be likely to have students who are of legal age for alcohol and some who are not.

The issues typically surface during hours where the students are not directly involved in the research activities. The issues can be divided into “attitude” and “behavior.”

The attitude of individuals can create significant problems in a student community. A good research placement experience pushes many students beyond their comfort zone in research in order for them to reach their own potential. Some students, often younger, who have not been pushed to perform independent work may complain and create discontent among the group. These students may need additional mentoring and socializing to understand the research/work ethic and related goals of the program.

Typical behavior issues include harassment and alcohol. It is important to make sure that students are aware of the local state and campus policies. Nevertheless, it is likely that students of all ages will drink alcohol together in social settings. You will want to ensure that the most appropriate response can be taken quickly in case of an emergency situation. This is planning for what we all hope is an uncommon scenario, but a nasty once if it does occur. Some programs employ graduate student supervisors to live with the undergraduates or at least provide general oversight of them. As a program director provide training and direction for these graduate student supervisors and set clear expectations. Define how they can socialize with the undergrads. If they are allowed to attend undergraduate parties, set an expectation on alcohol. If they are supervising the students, be sure and check on your campus or research lab policies. On some campuses any sexual relationship between a student and a supervisor may be considered sexual harassment.

Consider requiring one graduate student supervisor be available at all times for emergencies and make it clear that the supervisor must abstain from any alcohol or drug consumption when on call. Have the graduate students develop relationships with the undergrads, so that the students feel comfortable contacting the graduate students if there is a problem. In short, make sure mature supervision is available and accessible and that the graduate student supervisor who is dealing with an emergency was not part of drinking alcohol at the party or in an inappropriate relationship.

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Conflict between different race/ethnic groups in programs

* Additional content is in process

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It is likely that alcohol will enter into the social activities, whether you are directly aware of it or not.

Issues to Consider:

  • Student Attitudes:
    • Working with students who are inebriated
    • Students feel we should expect drinking, even heavy drinking.
  • Campus Housing
    • While there may be an alcohol policy and a paid person monitoring the housing facility, this person may not be effectively enforcing the policy.
  • Campus Policy:
    • The campus police may be instructed in the case of someone being taken to the hospital, to not investigate for under-age drinking or other violations. This policy is in place so that students will call the police when someone’s health is in danger without fear of themselves or friends getting in trouble.

So imagine, after enjoying working with students to help them envision their career, build their confidence and develop themselves as professionals, you may be suddenly faced with a group who will not freely talk and some you are sure are not telling the truth. As a program director, you are now in a role that you have no experience with: A situation with liability and life learning for which you were never trained.

The biggest mistake is to think that you can handle it on your own!  Consider when it's time to ask for help.


  • Expect alcohol to be an issue and don’t expect the default policies or procedures in campus housing to work.  Some programs engage a graduate student to live with undergraduate students.
    • Be clear at the beginning of what the limits are for student behavior and how they will be dealt with.
    • Be practical – only plan and announce what you are willing to do and can enforce.
  • Know when you need to bring in the experts in Student Affairs!
    • Build a relationship with the Dean of Students.  Ask them to step in when the situation is beyond your experience.  (Dealing with students who are not putting in their work time is very different than dealing with a group of students who have violated drinking policies and created an environment where someone was at risk.)

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Health insurance issues

Some universities require that students from other institutions have health insurance. You may need to require that the students sign a form indicating that they have health insurance. However, it is not uncommon for students to have no health insurance. At some universities, even if the visiting student comes in with health insurance, they are not allowed to use the university health center, but rather the local health clinic or hospital. If your program is at a field site you should explore the local health care facilities in case your students need to use them. These situations raise several issues that require attention so that they do not end up detracting from the field placement experience.

Particular issues include:

  1. Cost for short term health insurance for your program. This may need to be covered by your program
  2. Out of pocket expenses, for the student or the program.
  3. Visiting students may not be allowed to use the student health clinic. Explore other options.

Examples of problems have included: (1) finding additional financial resources for the program to pay for short term insurance, (2) loosing talented students who could not afford to meet the requirement, (3) large out of pocket expenses because of multiple emergency room visits when normal office hour visits are appropriate.


"In one case, a student left a placement with over $1000 in out of pocket expenses that were generated by multiple emergency room visits for minor health issues. The leadership and mentors when hearing of this realized that they had not even considered that a person would use an emergency room for that type of care, so had not even considered making sure that students knew all of the options for medical attention."

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

In some campuses, there is an open drop-in policy at the campus medical center. While expenses may be charged to a student’s health insurance purchased through student fees, students may not have ever realized the costs involved. In a field placement, the use of a local hospital or medical clinic in that same drop in mind set, may lead to use of the emergency room and hundreds or thousands of dollars of charges that a health insurance policy will not cover.

Students: Understand your health insurance policy and where you will be able to receive medical attention. Be sure that you understand the allowable expenses, visits, and required out of pocket expenses. Do not assume that the health insurance will work the same way that it does when you are at your home institution.

Mentors: Ensure that your program is providing adequate advice/guidance/support for health insurance and access to medical resources. If it comes to your attention that a student is in need of medical attention or is seeking medical attention, ask if they understand how their health insurance is handling the situation.

It is not your role to solve all the issues here, but to flag an issue and help get the student to the person that they need to consult about these issues.

Program Directors: Make sure to cover this subject thoroughly prior to the start of your program as well as in the orientation program when students arrive. Work with each student before they come to campus or a lab or field site so the student has the correct information for their health insurance. Check with the student health clinic on your campus regarding policies for visiting students to use their resources. If the students are required to use a health clinic or hospital in the community, make sure that information is available and ask the facility about any issues that you, your staff and your students should be aware of.

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