How a research institution can mentor undergrads better than an undergraduate institution


More doctoral students emerge from small liberal arts colleges than from the undergraduate populace of research institutions.

This is a point of pride held by liberal arts colleges, that market themselves as the best place to go if you want to become a scientist receiving a Ph.D. from a big-name research institution. Demographically, they’re correct.

Are small teaching schools better equipped to train undergraduate researchers better than big research institutions? I don’t think so.

In practice, liberal arts schools are far better at producing high quality researchers, but it’s not because of any inherent property of liberal arts schools. Some could argue that the curriculum itself might matter – that’s a discussion for another time – I’ll spend the rest of this post thinking about the single reason that people identify about what makes liberal arts schools a special place for budding researchers.

Here is the standard reasoning: Teaching schools provide students with the opportunity to have close professional interactions with their professors. Students in labs in small teaching institutions benefit from direct mentorship from the PI, which will more likely result in a higher quality research experience, better insights into how to do research, and greater opportunities to own their own research projects, enabling them to present at major venues and eventual publication as undergraduates.

How true is the preceding paragraph? It’s a straight-up fact that students at small teaching campuses are more likely to do more original research of their own working with their PI. And, if an undergraduate arbitrarily selects a research lab to join, then they’d probably end up getting a better experience at a teaching institution.

But, though this trend is real, research institutions have tremendous potential for training undergraduates. Without providing any additional resources, any research institution can be a top-notch training ground for undergraduates. After all, there is nothing inherent about teaching institutions that makes them better at training researchers.

There is nothing magical about having the PI as your direct mentor that will make you a better researcher and help you get into a better grad school. Looking closely at what supposedly makes a teaching institution better for training undergraduate researchers – close involvement with the PI – I see a massive handicap.

All of the literature on research mentorship says that the relationship is most successful when the mentor is just a little above the mentee in research experience. Even though the PI is a better academic expert and has mentored more, the Ph.D. student and the postdoc are in a position to be more effective as mentors.

The best mentoring arrangement is a multi-level team, in which the early undergrad works with a senior undergraduate, who then works with a Ph.D. student, who works with a postdoc as well as the PI. The PI knows everyone personally, and spends some time with the undergrads, but the graduate students are the better formal mentors. (A colleague of mine at a research institution recently tried to kick one of her own undergrad researchers out of the lab, because she didn’t recognize her. That’s not good.)

I suppose a young PI can connect more easily with students, but as we get older, then the nature of the relationship evolves. Add on a few years, and the gap between the PI and the student grows. Even if the PI is affable, and might truly understand the perspectives and thoughts of the students, it would be silly to ignore the fact that our students can’t relate to us and that we can’t relate to our students, even if we were once in their position. No matter how much time I spend with my students, now matter how similar our backgrounds are, the fact of who I am limits my ability to serve as a model. I can do all the right things in the mentoring process, but if a grad student did all of the right things, it would be even better. (And for my students from underrepresented groups, having a mentor from the same group is particularly powerful.)

I really like most of my students. I enjoy their company, and over time some have become good friends of mine. But, let’s face it, there’s a big gap. I’m older, have a kid and am married, and we don’t have that many overlapping interests. While I try hard to be transparent, I recognize that I seem like an enigma in a bunch of ways. (For example, earlier this summer one of my students was totally surprised that I use torrents to watch a couple TV shows. He just thought this was outside my realm for some reason.) I didn’t go to grad school in the middle ages, but things have changed since I’ve been there, and this is true for anybody who is at least halfway to tenure. If I try to discuss grad school with my students, I’m not nearly as credible or powerful as the same information coming from a current graduate student.

My position of authority makes me a less influential mentor.

I don’t want to overgeneralize from my experience, but I doubt that I’m alone.

You might be thinking, “Do your students really have to relate to their mentor to have an excellent research experience, and move their career to the next level?” Not necessarily. But I think it really helps. Especially for students who aren’t able to visualize themselves as capable of excelling in graduate school, a proximate model is an essential part of the mentoring process. Having seen my undergrads interact with doctoral students on a regular basis, it’s clear to me that without this kind of opportunity, that my students would missing out, big time.

Having a student know that the path has been blazed in front of them by other students, like them, matters. If students see other students throw themselves into research with great passion, they are more likely to allow themselves to get that excited. Of course, the same was true for me. But now, I’m an old bald dude with kids, and I get really excited about research, but in a different way. I can’t serve as a model for my students, even if I tried.

While grad students might not have the same authority and skill set as the PI, they can offer things that the PI can’t. This is exactly why a multi-level mentoring scheme is the way to go. The PI can choose to become involved when it is wise, and step back and focus on other things when the grad student has things under control.

Research institutions have grad students, but this doesn’t mean that they deliver great research experiences for undergraduates. While the personnel are available for a multi-level mentoring system, in many labs the system is nonfunctional because undergrads are often treated as serfs. I know many R1 labs that that are exceptional for undergraduates who work with graduate student mentors. However, I’m aware of far more labs that do not focus on making sure that undergraduates have their own research experience and are able to focus on building their own academic identity. In general, undergraduates in research institutions that receive their own project (as a piece of their mentor’s work) are the exception rather than the norm.

As for the mass production of Ph.D. students from small liberal arts colleges, I would bet that the outcome is a done deal even before the students enroll in college. The social and economic class that produces doctoral students is the same caste that is able to send students to fancy private liberal arts schools. Yes, there are scholarships and financial aid. But even if you look at small liberal arts colleges that heavily emphasize economic and ethnic diversity, they simply can’t match the diversity of the nation’s populace because, simply, most people can’t afford it. As long as the average cost of a liberal arts college is more than average cost of research universities, of course a higher proportion of doctoral students will emerge from liberal arts colleges.

How do I get my own students a multi-level mentored experience? Well, I don’t have that happen inside my lab on a day-to-day basis. I may have Master’s students around, but I usually have undergrads that are more seasoned than my grad students. That experience helps, but the way I really bring in graduate student and postdoc mentors is by having my students conduct their research in a hub of collaborative activity during the summer at a field station: La Selva Biological Station, in Costa Rica. There, my students build strong relationships with scientists from all over with different levels of experience, and these bonds typically stay tight after they leave the field station. Sometimes their projects become collaborations with grad students and postdocs at other institutions. I like that a lot, for a bunch of reasons.

If multi-level mentoring is important for the success of undergraduates, then what does this mean for you?

If you’re in a research institution: Postdocs and grad students should become genuine mentors and give undergraduates the time and resources to have their own students, and supervise them properly.  Faculty at research institutions should support their lab members, not just in the process of research but also in the process of mentorship. Don’t exploit undergraduates as trained monkeys. If you want someone to be an unthinking data-generating machine, then hire a technician. If you take an undergraduate to do “research,” then do actual research with them. Your own research agenda is easily split up into several smaller questions. Hand one of those questions to your undergraduate researcher, and learn how to mentor them. Give them the same support that you expect to receive from your own research advisor. Yeah, it’s not easy, but it will pay off for both of you in the long run.

If you’re at a teaching institution: Seek routes for multi-level mentoring in the lab. At a minimum, the undergraduates with more than two years of experience in the lab should be given the chance to actively supervise new students. Ideally, you can develop relationships with colleagues in other institutions with graduate students and postdocs. Find a way for your undergrads to become friends with doctoral students. I don’t know how to make this happen, and it varies with institutional context and geography, but from where I sit, it’s an ingredient that really promotes success. (For starters, you can bring students to smaller national meetings where they can build relationships with the students of your colleagues.)

I don’t have a big specific solution to the problem, but recognizing the fact that we as faculty are inherently flawed mentors is a start, and recognizing that the lack of graduate students at teaching institutions isn’t a strength, but a weakness, of the mentorship process.

16 thoughts on “How a research institution can mentor undergrads better than an undergraduate institution

  1. Great points. In your opinion/experience, what proportion of grad students / postdocs would be willing to (and capable of) providing a meaningful mentoring experience to an undergrad? What would be their motivation for doing so, rather than focusing on their own research? Or in other words, under what circumstances does it become a win-win situation?

    • I don’t see why in normal circumstances it wouldn’t be a win-win. Undergraduates will always benefit from having a genuine research experience over something less than that. (They might not want it, especially if they’re seeking “experience” for a resume and a recommendation letter rather than real experience.) The grad student mentoring an undergraduate will get more investment from the students, perhaps higher quality or quantity of data, and also have someone that will make a bigger contribution that increases the scope of the work the grad student can do. Just like PI can have a bigger research agenda with a team of postdocs and grad students, a grad student can have a bigger agenda with undergrads under mentorship.

  2. With regard to the large number of PhD’s coming from liberal arts colleges, all of your suggestions make sense and I am sure there are a number of factors. Another I would suggest is this. Undergraduates from research institutions are perhaps more likely to see disgruntled grad students and postdocs working long hours, and as 19-year-old sophomores they might think “hmm this might not be for me.” I would assume professors are more likely to give a more favorable picture of grad school than your average grad student. My discipline of chemistry is notorious for long work hours and demanding professors, and I think some people I know wouldn’t have gone to grad school if they had really known what they were getting into, but they still stuck it out and finished.

    • That’s a really good point. While some people are more likely to go to grad school because they really know what it’s like to be a grad student by spending time with them, then the converse is true – some would have avoided grad school if they knew what it was really like.

      • I completely agree. Though an undergraduate as a small liberal arts college, I was able to participate in summer research experiences with grad students, outside of this college. This interaction certainly helped me know more about what to expect when I joined grad school myself. Seeking out summer experiences at research universities or field stations can be the best of both worlds for students at smaller colleges, though this is easier said than done for some of us (e.g. most REU opportunities are unavailable to international students).

      • Speaking for myself, I came out of a small liberal arts college and knew exactly what grad school was like. In part because I visited the labs I was applying to (something every prospective grad student should do).

        • When I visited the labs, it was like a job interview. Free food and alcohol flowed, everybody was on their best behavior, and though the grad students were honest, I didn’t get to personally see them through their struggles.

  3. I had a really good experience as an undergrad in a research institution lab, and I think a lot of that was due to factors that would make the lab a great place to work for anyone – it was an open, welcoming environment with a very collaborative atmosphere where everyone enjoyed sitting down together and talking about their work. On the mentoring front, I started off with a formal postdoc mentor, then when I started working on a more independent project, I kept consulting with her and gained another fantastic, though informal, mentor in the form of a senior scientist/technician type in the lab who was willing to take me under his wing. I never had a grad student as a mentor while I was an undergrad, but I did get to know the grad students in the lab, and I think that did help me get a clear idea of what life was like as a grad student. I guess I found it convincing enough to want to give it a go! On the other hand, although I wasn’t directly supervised by my PI, he was quite accessible and I felt comfortable chatting with him. I think that was really helpful when it came time to apply to Ph.D. programs, because I felt that I could go up to him and say, “I’m thinking of doing a Ph.D. – can we sit down and talk about my interests and what labs/people you think would be a good fit for me?” I certainly wouldn’t have ended up where I am now if it hadn’t been for his suggestions!

  4. I just found my way here from a post and comment at the Dynamic Ecology blog. I was relishing my own small college experience over there, but in closing I said: “Both settings – small colleges and major universities – have their strengths and weaknesses creating opportunities and problems.” And you’ve identified some of those issues here.

    One issue that hasn’t been mentioned, and that I’ve found is very important: To make an undergraduate research project a “win-win” for the undergraduate and the grad student or postdoc who does the hands-on mentoring at research universities, it’s just too late to start in the senior year. The grad student or postdoc will make a large investment in training, but there won’t be the time to recoup that investment given the learning curve, errors, distractions, etc. that are a part of science and student life. So I’d never (or rarely) take on a senior to do research; in fact, we often get freshman and sophomores, who – if they like it and work out – might then work with us for 3 years. Those are the real “win-wins” for the hands-on grad or postdoc mentor!

  5. I would extend the multi-level mentoring advice even further – It’s entirely possible for faculty at SLACs to offer multi-level mentoring to undergraduates even when they don’t have graduate students or postdocs as part of their labs (although I don’t dispute that it helps). Some key actions that I see faculty at my university take are to (1) include alumni as part of a multi-level “pipeline” mentoring network and (2) stay connected to colleagues in their field. It’s a powerful thing when students know that their faculty advisor can call personally upon colleagues like Thomas Bugnyar or John Marzluff when they have questions about ethology research, or when they can review the senior thesis of a alumna whose graduate research is being featured in Science. Multi-level mentoring at SLACs is all about networking.

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