Mentorship = Training?


When I was an undergraduate in the early ’90s, I didn’t do much research. But when the students in my midst were doing research, they weren’t being “mentored.” They were getting “research training” or doing “undergraduate research.”

Nowadays, we “mentor.”

Is there any difference in what we are doing now compared to what people used to do, or is it just an evolution of nomenclature?

Here’s exhibit A. On Dynamic Ecology and elsewhere, they were having fun comparing historical trends with Google’s n-grams. I couldn’t resist cooking my own up:

Google n-gram of the use of the terms "undergraduate research," "research training" and "mentorship" in books

Google n-gram of the use of the terms “undergraduate research,” “research training” and “mentorship” in books over time

Oddly enough, the rise and fall of “undergraduate research” corresponds well with the use of that dated term to refer to female college students, “coed”:


The way I read this, there was a steady climb in “research training” after World War II. On the other hand, the popularity of the term “undergraduate research” tracks disco on the airwaves, or the push for the Equal Rights Amendment. “Mentorship,” though, has steadily climbed since the 1980s, following the wake of “undergraduate research.” I won’t tell the people at CUR if you don’t tell them.

I think what we are doing, on a day to day basis in our labs with our students, hasn’t substantially changed ever since the term “undergraduate research” was popularized.

The term “mentorship” is broadly applied to many circumstances. It’s not just used for undergraduate research. (In 30 Rock, Jack Donaghy was Liz Lemon’s “mentor.”). However, the rise of the term in general does seem to have displaced “undergraduate research” off the radar.

I have to admit that I’m partial to the notion that “mentorship” is different in philosophy than “training.” In the context of training Master K-12 science teachers to help new teachers being inducted into the profession, I’ve gotten some exposure to training in a formalized program that shows people how to mentor, called “Cognitive Coaching.” I bet the Cognitive Coaching people will disagree with me, but this is mostly about learning how to mentor, by learning how to truly listen well and coach someone through a learning process or challenge. I was skeptical of the whole concept at first, but let me tell you that every person I know who has gone through the training is very positive about it and says it was helpful, and these are people who don’t like to have their time wasted.

I can train someone. Mentorship is more difficult, because it takes more patience. Mentorship requires that you help someone figure it out for themselves when they can. Training is just showing someone how to do it and make sure they copy well.

I aspire to the practice of mentorship. I’m not a patient person, but I try. Let’s hope the change in language reflects a change in practice. However, I wouldn’t recommend that the Council for Undergraduate Research change its name to feature the role of Undergraduate Mentorship more prominently.

4 thoughts on “Mentorship = Training?

  1. Interesting. At the comprehensive public where I teach (in 2nd year on TT), it’s definitely still called ‘undergrad research’. The internal grants at college and university levels are ‘undergraduate research grants’. At my university, the university-level grants are run out of our sponsored research/programs office.

  2. We still use that phrase here too – but the verb that’s connected to working with the student is often “mentor” and the relationship is mentorship rather than advising. On our campus “student research day” the program identified each student’s “mentor.” I’m curious where the phase has picked up more than others. (NSF now requires a postdoctoral mentoring plan whenever a proposal includes a postdoc, too)

  3. Good point about the relationship. I think the title on my CV for the undergrad researchers I’ve supervised is ‘mentoring’. Any tips/lessons that have helped you improve your mentoring practices over the years?

  4. I do! There are whole books on it – a good one is from a department-mate of mine.

    The challenge for me is that the books and guides and best-practices that are widely recognized are not necessarily the best way for you to get research actually finished and published. So, what I do is a compromise that some people would think isn’t as a model approach. This’ll be an ongoing conversation on the site – how to work grow undergraduate research students but not at the cost of tanking your research program. It’s a juggling act that I don’t think people have addressed, and something I think, er, worry, about all too frequently.

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