Recruiting/Mentoring Undergraduate Research in the Geosciences

By Pat Manley, Middlebury College, Patrick Burkhart, Slippery Rock University, and Ed Hansen, Hope College

Recruiting Research Students

Slippery Rock University students visit Hay Butte, Badlands National Park. Photo courtesy of Patrick Burkhart.
Recruiting is the first step in mentoring undergraduate research students. Our students can come from within our home institution (internal students) or from another institution (external students). Some programs, such as the Keck Consortium or NSF REU, may require us to recruit external students. Recruiting internal students presents different challenges and requires different strategies than does recruiting external students.
Strategies for Recruiting Internal students:
  • Personal approach: perhaps the simplest and most effective way to recruit a student is through direct personal invitation. The problem is identifying promising students who will most benefit from the research experience. Students may be referred to us by colleagues or we may identify them in our classes. It is important to keep in mind that students who excel in their classwork do not always make the best researchers. While it is important to look for conscientious students who complete work and meet deadlines, signs of active curiosity and independent thought are better predictors of success in research than are grades.
  • Student initiated contacts: sometimes students will ask if they can work with us. Students will only do this if they know something about our research interests. Thus it is important to advertise by:
    • Mentioning our research in our classes and labs
    • Departmental seminars
    • Departmental and personal web sites
    • Bulletin boards or display cases that highlight our research
    • Word of mouth: our current and past research students are particularly effective in spreading the word
  • Competitive applications: in this approach, students fill out applications for research positions and the positions are awarded to the students with the strongest applications. Some programs, departments, and divisions have a common application process followed by all or most research students. One example of such a process is provided by the Hope College SHARP web page.
Strategies for Recruiting External students:
  • Program Websites. Many programs have websites designed to help mentors within those programs recruit external students. They include:
  • Institute for Broadening Participation's Pathway to Science web site: this site keeps a searchable database of summer research opportunities for the benefit of students from underrepresented groups, including this Summer Research Opportunity
  • Listservs and targeted emails: these are generally appeals to colleagues at other institutions asking them to recommend our research projects to students who might be interested
  • Personal visits to targeted institutions: one effective way to do this is to volunteer to give research seminars at these institutions
  • Presentations at professional meetings: these are an opportunity to spread the word among colleagues who may in turn recommend our program to their students

Underrepresented groups: The fact that these students are underrepresented in the geosciences means that recruiting them to our programs can be a challenge. This is covered in more detail in our section on Research for Underrepresented/Non Traditional Students.

What is a mentor?Faculty can play many roles in working with students in undergraduate research projects: as teacher (one way transfer of information), enabler (providing the means), advisor (providing guidance), or mentor. A mentor plays a special and extended role. A mentor:

  • Helps students adjust to expectations in today's realities;
  • Helps students excel when confronting these realities;
  • Shares life and professional experiences;
  • Persists in this role far beyond the duration of the research activity;
  • Shares networking opportunities; and
  • Serves as a role model in professional standards and displays quality interactions with other faculty.

Comments by Russell Cuhel, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Center for Great Lakes Studies at the 2011 GEO REU PI Workshop

What is the importance of mentoring?

Mentoring takes on several modes but the main focus is the relationship, both short- and long-term, between faculty and students. Mentoring is a means by which to enhance student retention within the geosciences and pass on knowledge to the next generation of geoscientists. The American Geosciences Institute (AGI) Geoscience Workforce Program Reports' (2009) predict that over 55,000 geoscience positions will be unfilled by 2029. Mentoring undergraduate researchers can effectively enhance a faculty research and foster lasting relationships that transcend the 4-year time at the undergraduate level. CUR has multiple publications on mentoring in its "How to" series.

Advice to a Young Scientist

R. B. Medawar wrote this benchmark book Advice to a Young Scientist (available online), to help novice scientists find their path and succeed. The reference can be beneficial to both the student researcher and the faculty mentor.

Models of mentoring

Long-term mentoring - Apprentice model

In the apprenticeship system, as it developed in the late middle ages, students would attach themselves to a master craftsman who would provide "on the job training". This method was highly effective and echos of it can be seen in the modern graduate student - mentor relationship. It can also be used with undergraduate research students. However, to be effective it typically requires long-term projects (over a year) and hence the sooner the student starts doing research the better. This approach can be especially effective if the student is joining an already established research group containing students with different levels of research experience analogous to a medieval workshop with its master craftsmen, journeymen, experienced apprentices, and novices. In this case the more experienced students can help mentor the less experienced students (see Peer Mentoring below) and such groups often develop their own traditions and espirt de corps.

Guiding students through a research "apprenticeship" involves a series of steps taking place over a period of several years and involves:
  1. Introducing the student to a smaller aspect of a larger problem through discussions and assigned readings
  2. Teaching the student a series of techniques through which they can collect information relevant to the problem
  3. As the data comes in holding regular meetings with the student to review the data, identify patterns, develop interpretations and trouble shoot problems.
  4. Work with the student to develop their first presentation for a scientific meeting. Attend the meeting with them and introduce them to other researchers in the field.
  5. Work with the student to plan the next phase of the project.
  6. Be available for the student as they bring you new data, point out patterns, suggest possible interpretations, and try out solutions to problems.
  7. Consult with the student as they design the final stages of their project. Part of this may involve the preparation of a paper.
  8. Help the student to develop and carry out a plan for their post baccalaureate life (see Mentoring for Transitions below)
  9. Cheer them on at graduation.
Every student, faculty mentor, and research group is different and hence the approach outlined above will not always be appropriate. However whatever course a long-term mentoring relationship takes the goal should be the same: to help a pluripotent student develop into a young scientist.

Short-term mentoring

Short-term mentoring has unique concerns, often associated with initiating research with an upper division student. With a limited number of semesters to complete research, directive guidance will enhance outcomes, as the time for self-exploration is constrained. A goal statement and a list of expected outcomes should guide the inquiry. Less time will be available to understand the context of an investigation and to develop an array of skills for the researcher. Efficiency is paramount. Fewer unsuccessful attempts at problem formulation and iterations in experimental design should result in better research productivity.

Peer mentoring

Peer mentoring can be a gratifying pedagogy to employ in undergraduate research. This model utilizes undergraduates, who are veteran researches, as leaders and teachers for their classmates. Students collaborating for the first time are typically concerned with the science, the socialization, and the logistics, in addition to myriad challenges of fieldwork under rigorous conditions (Eastman et al., 2007). The guidance of an experienced peer can help in all these regards, to the benefit of all team members. Independent critical thinking can be strengthened when veterans convey that they once also had doubts about their potential individual contributions, when they were first tasked. The veteran researcher offers this advice from a position with fewer social barriers and a smaller knowledge gap than those that often exist between faculty and students. In addition, the peer mentor can assist with logistics of camp life and coordination of diverse personalities within the group, without the involvement of faculty. Removing the faculty member from involvement with every issue can help prevent or diminish instructor burnout.

Peer mentoring strongly supports an espirit de corps within the team. The Winter 2010 volume of the CUR Quarterly (31, no.2) was dedicated to exploring peer mentoring in undergraduate research.

Eastman, N., Anderson, T., Jahn, M., Burkhart, P., Livingston, J., Chen, X., and Mickle, K., 2007, Successes of the Badlands Working Group at SRU for Early Undergraduates, GSA Abstracts with Programs 39 (6)

Mentoring for Transitions: After the Bachelors

Just as part of the job of a parent is to prepare their children to move on, part of our job as a mentor is prepare our research students for the next step. Resources to help prepare students for life after graduation have been gathered on our Mentoring for Transitions page.