As graduate students, many of us are involved in training or mentoring undergraduate students in some capacity. Such undertakings can be extremely rewarding and are beneficial to both the mentor and mentee. In fact, some of the skills that graduate students gain as mentors can be directly applied to the next stage in their career as postdocs, faculty members, or supervisors. One research study demonstrated that graduate students who served as mentors gained greater teaching, communication, and supervision skills.
Thiry and Laursen (2011) characterized three types of support that undergraduate students appreciated from their graduate student mentors. These included: intellectual support, professional support, and social support. Graduate mentors can provide their mentees with intellectual support by helping them understand the necessary processes for each project (e.g., how to run a certain analysis on SPSS). More importantly, they can also provide intellectual support by helping them to critically think about the project, provide intellectual input, and gain an understanding of the project’s broader goals and context. By sharing their experiences in graduate school as well as guiding their mentees to participate in professional development opportunities like conferences, graduate students can also provide professional support to undergraduate research assistants. Graduate students can also create a socially supportive environment for undergraduate students so that they are comfortable with asking questions. When graduate students who are mentors share insights and experiences about setbacks and disappointments that researchers face (on a regular basis), they can foster resilient mentees by encouraging them to keep up their morale when things don’t go as expected—which is likely to happen at some point.
Several online sources of information, such as this one, provide useful tips and tricks to first-time graduate student instructors. A current challenge that graduate teaching assistants (GTA) and instructors have been facing is remote teaching during the pandemic. Online teaching might take up more time than face-to-face classroom teaching in some cases. For example, instructors might spend time monitoring discussion forums and posts to ensure that students are communicating with each other in a civil and respectful manner. Or they might spend a great deal of time looking for and posting additional resources or videos that students can access in addition to lectures or class discussions. In my experience, a positive outcome of online teaching was increased class participation. Such a setting provided even shy students or students who would not otherwise share their questions or opinions in face-to-face classroom settings a platform to voice their thoughts. It is therefore possible to leverage the online classroom setting to be an inclusive space for students with diverse views.
Following-up with students, being organized, making time available for them, encouraging students to be involved in research activities outside of the lab or classroom, and being understanding about other stressors and commitments that your undergraduate mentees may face can foster a mutually respectful relationship. Such strategies seem to be simple and effective ways to facilitate meaningful work. In addition to the way in which graduate student instructors teach a course, some research suggests that it really matters to students whether their instructors care about them. Instructors should, however, be cautious about not overstepping interpersonal boundaries.
Graduate student mentors can have a lasting impact on their students. One group of researchers found that undergraduates were more likely to be inspired by graduate student instructors in that they were more likely to major in a subject if it was taught by a graduate student instructor. This impact goes both ways—graduate students who were engaged in teaching were more likely to graduate earlier and more likely to secure jobs at colleges and universities!
The Chronicle of Higher Education: Teaching with technology
Council on Undergraduate Research: Effective strategies for mentoring undergraduate students
American Psychological Association: Working with undergraduate students
Inside Higher Ed: The power of grad student teaching