Of the students in our analytic sample, 18 (75%) were female and 13 (54%) were URM (Table 2). Nine respondents (38%) were URM female students. Most students had at least one mentor at UNC-CH. These included research (faculty or postgraduate (graduate students or postdoctoral) researchers, or lab staff), teaching (faculty from whom students took courses), and program mentors (faculty and staff affiliated with CSS). Some students (12.5%) also received mentorship from peers, though this was less common. Importantly, while the CSS program facilitated mentorship for students, many of them found mentorship from other sources. While all students participated in a supervised research experience through CSS, one student mentioned that they did not currently have anyone in their life they considered an active mentor.
We identified two key themes which correspond with our research questions. First, we characterized successful mentorship, highlighting students’ values and preferences in mentoring relationships and the unique role of research mentorship. Second, we identified the influence of mentorship on scientific identity, particularly the role of mentored research in reinforcing mentorship experiences and reinforcing students’ identities.
Characterizing Successful Mentoring Relationships
Students said they looked to mentors to fill a variety of roles, ranging from intimate involvement with their day-to-day lives on campus to more tangential involvement. Many students had several mentors, each filling a unique role.
I think all of them provide something different … they provide very useful advice, like, different kinds of advice. [With] one of them, [it’s] purely research. He’s like, you know, a connoisseur of research, like what I should do and … how to do that. Another one’s more like life advice … It’s good to have a lot of mentors, just because they can all provide you with different kinds of advice.—Non-URM female
I think I have four or five mentors … I have teachers who have served as mentors for me, just to get through those classes, but also provide a lot of emotional support. And then I also have my mentors, of course, through CSS, who have also provided academic and emotional support as well … my newest mentor, it was just that [researcher], so I’m actually gonna be continuing my work with her in grad school.—URM female
Most students differentiated between advisors and mentors. For these students, advisors were people they sought out when they needed advice, but who remained relatively distant and less involved in their day-to-day college lives. In contrast, mentors—including research, teaching, and program mentors—were not only sources of advice but were intimately involved in their academics, research and other work, and longer-term planning. Importantly, students emphasized the value of having a shared identity with mentors—whether that was a shared racial or ethnic, gender, or other identity. This shared identity was a key feature distinguishing mentors from advisors, and this was particularly salient for URM students. For example, a URM female described how she views her female research mentors differently from a male mentor:
I will consider [male faculty] an advisor more than a mentor. I know they go together, but he’s just – [he will] listen, provide me advice. But the two women, I feel they – I can look up to them to know that I’m going to be where they are one day. So, I just split that up – with [my female mentors] I know I’m going to – I’m looking at myself in the future, and then [my male mentor] is just advice.
Another student, a URM male, found research mentorship through graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. However, his mentoring relationship with a CSS staff member of color served as an important and “inspiring” example to him:
I would list him as a mentor just because he is an African American male that has made it. And he’s doing amazing work and he’s now giving back and continuing to lead more and more minorities in terms of inspiring them to become educational leaders.
Some students intentionally sought out formal mentors who could serve as role models and provide professional and academic support. For example, a URM female student described intentionally seeking out mentorship through a professor because she needed research guidance and support: “I was like, I really want to do research, but I don’t know of anyone that can help me. Then [professor] ended up introducing me to a few people.” While this mentoring was described positively by the student, she and other students emphasized that such relationships were more unidirectional in nature, meaning that students actively sought out support rather than mentors initiating it.
In contrast, many students mentioned that their strongest and most sustained mentoring relationships were more informal or “organic” in nature. One URM male student described an early interaction with a teaching mentor:
So, one day really early in the program we were going to some benefit on campus and it was just a downpour, like think of the hardest rainstorm you’ve ever been in. That was it. We were all dressed up in suits and everything ... I held my umbrella out ...above the doorway and then I just stood in the rain for like five minutes while everybody was walking in and [future mentor] saw that and he thought it was just like cool. And ever since, we’ve been really close … Whenever we run into each other we get coffee. Like so, just organic, you know?
In general, students said they preferred mentoring relationships that felt natural and informal in nature. These relationships also tended to be more bidirectional, meaning both students and mentors took on the role of initiating contact and support. For most students, these informal relationships were characterized by personal closeness, which was not experienced in formal relationships. However, students emphasized that while they valued personal closeness with mentors, they wanted this to be balanced with academic or career accountability. In other words, while students appreciated mentors to whom they related and felt close personally, they felt it was equally important to have mentors who pushed them to achieve. In some mentoring relationships, these qualities were at odds; some students described mentors who challenged them academically but offered little emotional support or intimacy, while others described mentors who were close supporters but did not strongly challenge them. However, students felt that being both emotionally supported and academically challenged was important and made them feel valued as mentees.
Students who lacked the desired level of academic accountability often said their mentorship was missing something. One URM female described how, although she was happy with the personal support received from one of her program advisors, she wished this mentor could support her in other ways:
[It] is more like a personal relationship than academic relationship than I’ve had with a lot of my other CSS advisors ... That being said, sometimes I did wish we talked about – he was not harder on me, but a little bit hard on me of, “What are you doing right now? What do you see yourself doing in a week or two weeks and how are you gonna get those things done?” I don’t really have a mentor or advisor like that. So I kind of have to do it to myself.
Other students received strong accountability from mentors, but felt less comfortable with the mentor if they did not feel close to them personally. Students said it was ideal to find this balance in a single mentor, but if this was not available, they found accountability and closeness through a mix of mentors. For example, a non-URM female described a research mentor that pushed her to achieve her goals, but with whom she did not feel particularly close. For her, as for other students, the desired balance of intimacy and accountability was achieved through a mix of different mentors, including informal peer mentors, rather than from an individual mentor:
[My research mentor is] really great in terms of asking me what I want to do, where I want to go with my life, and how I can reach those goals … But I think sometimes I get more mentorship opportunities out of students or friends that I’m close to, just because I’m more comfortable going to them a little bit more frequently and asking different kinds of questions. So it’s a mix of both.
Similarly, a male respondent described his peer and postgraduate mentors as people who “keep me on top of what I need to be doing,” while faculty and CSS program staff served more personal mentoring roles. The desire for mentoring relationships characterized by shared identity, intimacy, and accountability was expressed by students about all types of mentors. However, as will be elaborated in the next section, research mentors exemplified additional characteristics that differentiated these relationships from others.
Unique Role of Research Mentorship
When describing successful mentoring, students often talked about the link between research and mentoring, and cited mentored research experiences as uniquely impactful. Indeed, research mentors were very common in our sample, with 20 of 24 students reporting having at least one research mentor. These were often a students’ direct collaborators on a research project or in their lab, including study principal investigators, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, or other lab staff. In contrast to teaching or program mentors, who tended to take on more distant, advice-giving roles, students saw research mentors as supportive colleagues who gave them opportunities to grow in their scientific identities and as examples to model.
Important for many students was the link between research mentorship and hands-on research experience. While students found mentors in a variety of places, those more heavily engaged in research activities had not only increased access to mentors, but stronger mentoring relationships overall. Similarly, having a strong mentor seemed to encourage students to become more involved in research activities in their fields. Research mentors’ unique roles as collaborators positioned them well to both advise students and support them in pursuing independent work and exploring new research goals. This type of support played a critical role in giving students confidence in their work:
[My research mentor is] somebody who I know is pushing me, who’s behind me … who’s willing to put her neck out for me as a student, and she’s been really supportive … [she] helped me realize that I can do this type of work, even though I don’t have much experience in it. Even though I might be the youngest person in the department, it’ll be okay.—URM female
Research mentors were also important sources of inspiration. Students often said they felt proud of working with and being mentored by researchers they looked up to in their fields. They mentioned the importance of receiving affirmation, feedback, and support from people they admire. One student described feeling valued by her research mentors’ encouragement and support, noting that, “The work that comes out of their lab, it’s some of the best in the nation, and they make sure that my work is good.” Another student described a research mentor as someone who took time out of his schedule to check in with her regularly and noted how she values the insights of a mentor who “has done it”:
He’s just been really great in terms of asking me what I want to do, where I want to go with my life and how I can reach those goals. And just being a sounding board for, “Well, I’m thinking about this. Should I do this or that?” That kind of mentorship or someone that’s older and has done it and has seen things change.—non-URM female
Collaboration with what one student called “world-class scientists” not only facilitated high-quality mentoring relationships for students, but also played a critical role in building their confidence and fostering in them a more salient sense of scientific identity. This is described in the following section.
Influence of Mentoring on Scientific Identity
When students were asked if they identified as scientists, they overwhelmingly said they did. Sixteen of 24 respondents indicated that, at least to some extent, they saw themselves as scientists. However, students’ explanations of their identities indicated that they varied along a spectrum from weaker, less salient or undeveloped, to stronger, more salient and fully developed, scientific identity. Students with weaker scientific identities were those who expressed hesitation or lack of clarity about this identity or said they felt they were not quite scientists, but on their way. These students described themselves as “science-interested,” “scientist in training,” or as “leaning toward” being a scientist. Some said outright they did not identify as scientists at all. Students with stronger scientific identities were quicker and more confident in their expression of this identity and often articulated specific qualifications they felt made them scientists. These students also commonly expressed that being a scientist was an important part of their overall identity.
The salience of students’ scientific identities corresponded to a number of qualities in their mentoring relationships. While most students did not explicitly draw this connection, the ways students with strong or weak scientific identities talked about mentorship and identity were similar, reflecting commonalities in the experiences of students in these groups. Students with more salient scientific identities tended to have more established, longer-term mentoring relationships. They described their mentors as sources of support, and guidance, but also as collaborators who facilitated opportunities for their growth. One URM female student with strong scientific identity salience described receiving strong, long-term mentorship from her research advisors and collaborators. This mentorship was characterized not only by support and encouragement, but by feedback and accountability:
If my work’s not good, they don’t tell you like, “Oh, this is horrible.” They say, “This is how you should make this [better].” And you’re kinda seeing eyebrows like [look of concern], but they tell me how to make it much better.
Receiving direct support and feedback from her mentors gave this student better research skills and more confidence in her abilities as a scientist. She described how taking on more independent work in the lab, with this support, enabled her to call herself a scientist.
In contrast, students with less salient scientific identities described fewer mentoring relationships overall. These relationships tended to be initiated by students as necessary, with little long-term commitment, collaboration, or academic accountability. For example, one female URM student with weaker scientific identity salience mentioned a few mentors during her interview, including a postdoctoral researcher, a CSS staff member, and a professor. Throughout her discussion of these individuals, she described how each of her mentoring relationships were self-initiated and based on provision of advice without accountability. In describing the lack of accountability, the student expressed some frustration, saying, “I have to do it myself.” While this student described a number of successes in her work including “having basically all the postdocs wanting me to do their work,” she was concerned about calling herself a scientist, saying “I don’t think I’m there yet” and “I tend to doubt myself a lot.”
While most students received some form of research mentorship, those who did not also tended to express less salient scientific identities. One non-URM male student described that “mentors are one of the areas that I have a scarcity of resources.” The mentors he discussed during his interview were teaching mentors who he described as providing a “voice of reason” and guidance when they had academic concerns. While this student was engaged in research, he did not consider his research collaborators to be mentors. Instead, he said, he only went to them when he had work-related questions. And while this student was very science-interested and had been accepted into multiple PhD programs in a STEM field, he explained that he felt “limited” in his “ability to really be a scientist.”
Some students described drastic changes in their scientific identity over their time during college and in the CSS program, typically moving from initially having no sense of scientific identity to now fully and confidently self-identifying as a scientist. Others described more subtle progressions over time. A few students said they came to college and the CSS program already feeling like scientists:
I guess I do consider myself a scientist. I think I can think critically, find a problem, have a reasonable hypothesis, test data about it. I think I’ve felt that way for a while. Like, entering the program I felt that way.—Non-URM female
This, however, was not a common experience. Most students entered the program with a weaker sense of scientific identity, but their conceptualization and expression of this identity developed over time. Many students gained confidence through their STEM coursework and ultimately found fulfillment in their scientific identities as they applied their learning through lab work or other research. Indeed, students overwhelmingly described scientific identity as achieved through experiences outside the classroom. In particular, students emphasized the distinction between scientific “thinking,” which many felt was insufficient to identify oneself as a scientist, and scientific “action.” This was true not only for students who strongly identified as scientists, but also for those who expressed a weaker scientific identity:
I don’t currently identify as a scientist. It’s something I want to work towards. Right now, I feel like a student. I have a long path ahead of me … I’ve got the thinking down, and I’ve got the – I guess the – I’ve got the thinking down; I just don’t have the action down yet.—Non-URM male
A female student elaborated on this, saying that it took her a year and half of doing her own research and taking STEM courses to feel strong in that identity:
At this point I’m definitely a scientist. I would say the point is when I started to write up my own results and have a paper and general ideas about my own research project and being able to present at a lab meeting … actually doing research.—Non-URM female
For many students, this emphasis on scientific action—versus some other qualification—helped them reject the notion that scientists were “elite.” One non-URM female student described how “a lot of times, people have this – they think ‘scientist’ is like a high-up word. But I think when you’re doing … any type of science, you’re a scientist.” For others, however, the emphasis on scientific action led to a weakening of formerly held scientific identity. One student described how, despite identifying strongly as a scientist during childhood, he now felt more limited in that identity:
On one hand, yes. It’s one of those, like, forever things. It’s always been a part of the identity … since I was 10 or 11 … On the other hand, not really, you know? Like, I’m doing some science, but I’m not publishing daily. You know, there’s a whole bunch of other things that I’m doing that I think limit my ability to really be a scientist.—Non-URM male
These students felt they were on their way to becoming scientists, but had not taken the necessary steps to achieve that identity:
I don’t think I’m not a scientist, but I think I haven’t quite reached the point where I’m comfortable saying, “Hey, I’m a [scientist] who studies [this],” that sort of step there. I don’t think I’ll reach that point until either I publish my first paper or complete grad school or something.—URM male
While most students emphasized the role of research in fostering their scientific identities, they generally did not draw an explicit connection between research experiences, identity, and mentorship. Instead, students tended to describe their scientific identities as achieved through independent work and reflection. However, our interview data suggest that mentorship did play a key role in strengthening students’ scientific identities through the research process. Mentors—particularly research mentors—facilitated and supervised formative experiences, supported students as they pushed their own limits, and served as examples of what it meant to be a scientist.
Many students saw their mentors as sources of encouragement and support as they pursued more independent work, giving them confidence in their abilities as scientists:
What I’m most proud of is just taking up this really big task [in the lab] and feeling completely confident in doing it. And then also just writing my thesis … I’ve never written a paper to the point that it’s publishable. I’ve written them turning in for school and stuff, but this paper is so good. And I had my advisors working with me the whole time.—URM female
For students with stronger scientific identity, mentors not only encouraged them as they pursued independent work, but facilitated the opportunities to do so. This was especially the case for research mentors. For example, one student discussed the postdoctoral researcher who mentored her in a lab, saying, “She’s just really mentored me from the very beginning … She’s held my hand the entire way.” She went on to discuss the role this mentor played in fostering experiences that shaped her scientific identity, including publication opportunities.
She asked me if it was okay if she put my name on the publication. I don’t know. Just feeling very included, like, “Hey, I’m gonna be published,” is, I think, the most satisfying. Everything that I’ve done leading up to the moment makes me an actual scientist.—URM female
For other students, while research mentors played a less direct role in these formative experiences, they inspired students’ aspirations toward scientific identity. Many students aspired to not only meet the expectations of their research mentors, but to match them in their work. They described feeling proud and satisfied after presenting their research at conferences or when networking with colleagues, a role they often saw their mentors taking on.
I’m the only undergraduate on my study … So, just like satisfying. It’s like I presented on it and I did the entire thing by myself, and I was able to answer all of the questions … So I think that was the biggest achievement that I’ve made in research was just being able to contribute and answer questions just as well as my PI [principal investigator] could.—Non-URM female
For other students, interacting with research mentors challenged their previous notions of what it meant to be a scientist. One non-URM female student discussed how her identity evolved from being a “hard scientist” to what she called a “business scientist”:
I feel like I was a hard scientist coming in, in terms of experience and hypothesis and testing and all that. And now I think I’ve moved more towards – this isn’t even a word – but a business scientist … using technology to solve business needs and testing that and seeing what can we do that’s different … And I don’t think I recognized that that too is science. Even though I’m not a chemist in a lab and pouring chemicals and boom-reaction-done … So I consider myself a scientist in that aspect, but maybe not the traditional research scientist working in a lab.
This student described how, through her research experiences and engagement with mentors, her scientific identity developed in unanticipated ways. While other students retained more traditional definitions of scientists, their understandings of the scientific community, and their own role in it were similarly shaped by their research and mentoring experiences.