The mentorship problem in primarily undergraduate institutions


I’m back down at the field station in Costa Rica (missing my family quite a bit) and I had a very minor realization while having dinner among my students. It’s definitely a cliché of sorts, but I realized that the t-shirt I was wearing was older than some of my students.

I know this because the t-shirt had a specific date on it (February 23, 1996, memorializing a University of Colorado women’s basketball home game against the University of Oklahoma. Everybody in my section won a free t-shirt. Did they make a different shirt for every single home game with the date on it, and is that normal?) I brought the shirt down to Costa Rica at some point and it’s lived down here ever since as a field shirt. I know how old the students are because I needed their dates of birth to buy the plane tickets.

Anyway, I’m older than my students, and different in plenty of other ways too. I’d like to think that I’m not botching it as a mentor this go-round, but I also realize that my identity itself gets in the way. There’s no shortage of real evidence that mentors with backgrounds more similar to their students have a greater capacity to be effective, and that a big age and experience gap gets in the way. Experience as a mentor is great, and the expertise I’ve developed over the years is mighty handy, but let’s face it, students interacting with me aren’t thinking, “I can see myself in his shoes someday.” Even though that’s precisely what I see as for them (if that’s what they want to do, of course).

We’ve been working together for a few days now, and I think our project is coming along well (we’re just knocking out a short project as a collaborative team). I think we could get through these two weeks with a solid project and an nice little paper, and the students would have had a good time at the rainforest, and perhaps inspired to pursue some more research. But I would like to give the students a greater opportunity to understand what grad school is about, and to get to personally know grad students beyond just overlapping together at the field station. So, I was lucky enough to be able to convince a super-awesome PhD student I’ve worked with (on a prior field course) to join us to collaborate on this project. She’s got great ideas and is a very disciplined scientist and this will clearly make the science better, but also is a kind of model for my students that I’ve aged out of long ago.

If you read the brochures for primarily undergraduate institutions, they make a lot of the fact that students have a very special opportunity to do real research with real professors. And there’s an element of truth to that (though I know plenty of undergrads and PIs at major research institutions who develop close working relationships PIs). But is this marketing point all that’s it’s cracked up to be? Is there any reason to think that the PhD student in our research team will be any less of an effective mentor and role model than myself — and aren’t there reason to think that she can be more effective? I think a multi-tiered mentoring situation might be best, and that’s something that is hard to implement in the context of many PUIs. And shipping students away to REUs, often to get little support from their mentor after the program is over, isn’t the best way to fix the problem either.

Anyway, today our collaborator is showing up on station. While I’m really enjoying working with my students up to now, I’m glad that, at least for this project, I was able to find a way to build a collaborative team that has a range of backgrounds and experiences that can better meet the needs of my students.

One thought on “The mentorship problem in primarily undergraduate institutions

  1. I’ve seen this (in some sense) from all sides. I’ve been the undergrad with a professor as my mentor, and no PhD in between; I’ve been the PhD student with undergraduates to mentor; now I’m the small pond professor with 5 undergraduates to mentor this summer. As a matter of fact, I have 2 recent graduates who stayed with me over the summer who can help out the undergraduates. So far, I think this is a working model:
    1) Multiple undergrads can help each other out with frustration over daily details
    2) The graduates can serve as role models (both are going to R1s for a PhD), and help out with coding issues, with checking first results, etc
    3) I make a point of being in the student office for at least an hour per day, usually quite a bit more.

    Now, I like to think that I’m young enough that they can still see me as a distant role model (I was in high school when your Tshirt was born), but even if that’s true now, that is going to change soon. But in some sense, the biggest transformation is not between undergrad and PhD, but between starting undergraduate researcher and finishing up. If I do my job well, by the time I’m done with them they know what the rigor of science is about, have written a paper draft, and differ in nothing from a younger PhD student than age. In other words: Those students can serve as the role models for the next generation, as long as they can start doing research early, preferably as a sophmore or so.

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