Toward a Holistic View of Undergraduate Research Experiences: An Exploratory Study of Impact on Graduate/Postdoctoral Mentors

Abstract

Involvement in research has become a fixture in undergraduate science education across the United States. Graduate and postdoctoral students are often called upon to mentor undergraduates at research universities, yet mentoring relationships in undergraduate—graduate/postdoctoral student dyads and undergraduate—graduate/postdoctoral student—faculty triads have been largely unexamined. Here, we present findings of an exploratory case study framed by relational theory that identifies the motives, gains, and challenges reported by graduate/postdoctoral students who mentored undergraduates in research. Graduate/postdoctoral mentors experienced a wide range of gains, including improved qualifications and career preparation, cognitive and socioemotional growth, improved teaching and communication skills, and greater enjoyment of their own apprenticeship experience. Notably, graduate/postdoctoral mentors reported twice as many gains as challenges, neither of which were limited by their motives for mentoring. Indeed, their motives were fairly narrow and immediate, focusing on how mentoring would serve as a means to an end, while the gains and challenges they reported indicated a longer-term vision of how mentoring influenced their personal, cognitive, and professional growth. We propose that understanding the impact of mentoring undergraduates on the education and training of graduate/postdoctoral students may uncover new ideas about the benefits reaped through undergraduate research experiences.

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Acknowledgments

We thank all the respondents of this study. Support for this research was provided by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF MCB-0445878). Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of NSF. We thank Kathryn Smith and Chevon Thorpe for their assistance with coding and Iris Alkaher, Dustin Bond, David Lally, Deniz Peker, Tonya Pruitt, Alyson White, and the anonymous reviewers for their careful reading and thoughtful feedback.

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Correspondence to Erin Dolan.

Appendix

Appendix

Interview Questions for Graduate/Postdoctoral Mentors

Characteristics of Undergraduate Research Experiences (UREs)

  1. 1.

    For how long were you a graduate/postdoctoral student in this research group?

  2. 2.

    At what point in your graduate/postdoctoral training in this group did you start mentoring undergraduates?

  3. 3.

    In the course of your time in the group, how many undergraduates did you mentor?

  4. 4.

    What kind of undergraduate research experience (URE) models were you involved with as a mentor (e.g., year-round research apprenticeship, summer only research apprenticeship, research as part of coursework, research as part of a career or retention program, etc.)?

  5. 5.

    Did you complete a URE when you were an undergraduate? How was it funded?

  6. 6.

    How were the undergraduates typically recruited into this group?

  7. 7.

    How did you contribute to the structure of the URE?

Mentorship Structure

  1. 1.

    Were you the primary mentor for your undergraduate during their research experience?

  2. a.

    (If yes) How would you define your mentorship role during this experience? What was the faculty head’s mentorship role for this URE?

  3. b.

    (If no) Who was the primary mentor for your undergraduate?

  4. 2.

    How would you define your mentorship role for this URE?

  5. 3.

    Did you receive any formal or informal mentorship training prior to embarking on the URE?

  6. a.

    (If yes) Please describe. In what ways did you find the mentorship training useful?

  7. b.

    (If no) Why do you think you did not receive mentorship training? In what ways do you think mentorship training could be useful?

Motivation and Goals for Mentoring UREs

  1. 1.

    What is/was your motivation for mentoring an undergraduate researcher?

  2. 2.

    What did you expect your undergraduate to gain or accomplish after completion of a URE with you?

Impacts of Mentoring UREs

  1. 1.

    How did you, as a graduate or postdoctoral student, benefit from mentoring UREs? [Probe regarding research, education, career, and personal impacts.]

  2. 2.

    What were the negative aspects or difficulties of the URE for you as a mentor? [Probe regarding research, education, career, and personal impacts.]

  3. 3.

    How did the presence of undergraduate researchers in the group affect the overall group dynamic?

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Dolan, E., Johnson, D. Toward a Holistic View of Undergraduate Research Experiences: An Exploratory Study of Impact on Graduate/Postdoctoral Mentors. J Sci Educ Technol 18, 487 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10956-009-9165-3

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Keywords

  • Mentoring
  • Undergraduate research
  • Undergraduate education
  • Graduate/postdoctoral education