Students participating in undergraduate research experiences (UREs) in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) might be faced with a number of engaging and challenging situations during their research experience. The success of students in UREs depends upon the support structures in place. Often this means having available and accessible mentors, although not all undergraduates will have access to mentors.1 There are more than 50 definitions of mentoring: mentoring can be defined as a concept, a process, a developmental experience, or a set of activities (Crisp and Cruz, 2009). Moreover, mentoring interactions can be informal or formal, short or long, spontaneous or planned. Mentors can also play a variety of roles. These can include relatively simple activities such as offering a name or well-timed introduction, or mentoring may involve more complex activities such as providing advice or guidance and answering complex questions. Furthermore, mentors can help students by bringing together ideas from different contexts to promote deeper learning. The roles played by mentors can change across the experience and can be accomplished by different individuals or a team of individuals. Although most studies tend to report that mentoring has a positive impact on academic success, the variability in terms of the defining roles and types of interactions has made it difficult to fully evaluate the impact of mentoring on UREs (Crisp and Cruz, 2009).
This chapter examines the role of mentors in undergraduate research by defining “mentor,” the mentoring relationship, and who can serve as a mentor and then examining the research on mentoring. The chapter then goes into a discussion of the various roles that mentors can play and presents a summary of some of the associated outcomes of mentoring from the perspective of the mentor and the mentee. The last section reviews some of the existing URE mentoring programs, including programs to train mentors for success with undergraduate mentees.
“Mentor” has been defined in many ways dating back to Greek mythology (Kram, 1985). In the simplest sense, mentorship, or the act of mentoring, describes an experienced person (mentor) guiding a less experienced person (mentee/protégé) (Eby et al., 2007). Mentoring has also been used to describe many different types of relationships in the research training context. These relationships include academic advising, research or laboratory supervision, evaluation, informal support, personal support, and career coaching. Mentors provide support beyond teaching and learning to include social and personal elements (Galbraith, 2003; Johnson and Zlotnick, 2005; Mullen, 2005; Waldeck et al., 1997). After reviewing usage in the literature, the committee adopted the following functional definition: Mentoring is a collaborative learning relationship that proceeds through stages over time and has the primary goal of helping a less experienced person acquire the essential competencies needed for success in that person’s chosen career.
As stated previously, mentoring interactions can be informal or formal, short or long, spontaneous or planned. Mentoring relationships can occur naturally in a spontaneous manner, and the development of the relationship may be gradual and informal in nature (Johnson, 2002). This kind of mentoring role contrasts with formal mentoring that is more structured, with the mentee assigned to the mentor (Johnson and Ridley, 2004), as occurs in some wrap-around programs (see Chapter 2 on URE program types) that have an institutionalized mentoring structure in which specific types of mentoring (e.g., research, academic, personal) are carried out by trained, qualified mentors (Twale and Kochan, 2000). However, more informal mentoring relationships can allow for a closer interpersonal bond to form, as they are not limited to the length of the program and frequently persist over a longer period of time (Mullen, 2005).
Ideally, mentees and mentors engage as partners through reciprocal activities such as planning, acting, reflecting, questioning, and problem solving (Pfund et al., 2016). Mentoring competency is then defined as having the skills and knowledge to effectively support mentee development and facilitate the attainment of the transferable “competencies” necessary to
meet individual mentees’ goals. This requires the ability to come to a clear understanding of each mentee’s unique needs and desires and the flexibility and humility to adjust one’s approach to support a mentee’s success. Thus, mentoring success, which can be an ongoing and adaptive experience, occurs when the mentee has gained (1) the personal and professional competencies necessary to define his/her career goals, (2) the experience needed for that career, and (3) the ability and opportunity to progress toward that chosen career goal (Pfund et al., 2016). Alignment of the goals of the mentor and mentee is crucial, whether or not the mentee aspires to become a STEM professional.
Students in apprentice-style research experiences, particularly at research-intensive universities, are typically mentored by postdoctoral scholars or graduate students; these novice mentors may vary in their ability to provide appropriate guidance and support and in their commitment to advising an undergraduate (Dolan and Johnson, 2009; Thiry and Laursen, 2011). In the case of course-based UREs, lab instructors or teaching assistants may play the role of mentors. For co-ops and internships, in addition to the faculty sponsor, industry researchers take on many of the responsibilities of mentorship. Moreover, in more structured programs, peer-to-peer mentoring programs are common, drawing on peers who are at the same grade level but may have more experience or junior/senior undergraduates. In some instances, this form of “mutual mentoring” can happen informally as students work together to solve problems. There is no training for this type of mentoring, but it can have benefits for research that is designed to be carried out in team settings (Ryser et al., 2009). Box 5-1 highlights the beneficial role that peer-to-peer mentoring can have in increasing retention in STEM. Moreover, mentoring carried out by graduate students can provide undergraduates with an “insider’s” perspective into the next step in pursuing a research career: the graduate training program. For example, a grad-undergrad mentoring program developed at the University of Pennsylvania2 has shown that grad-undergrad mentoring has helped undergraduate students broaden and deepen their understanding of educational and career opportunities in STEM fields.
Finally, in many cases a single individual does not serve all of the mentoring functions (described in the subsequent section). Mosaic mentoring—mentoring that is carried out through a network of mentors—is becoming a more prevalent approach in order to provide a circle of support for undergraduates (Bartlett, 2012; Darling, 1986; Head et al., 1992;
Mullen, 2007). For example, in the Girls Exceling in Math and Science (GEMS) program described in Box 5-1, students have a peer support group (the cohort of mentees) that meets on a regular basis in addition to the mentoring provided by the upper-division peer and faculty mentors. As the example highlights, this level of support provided by a network of mentors has resulted in significant benefits. However, this approach is not always practical within a particular institution or in certain disciplines. In these cases, mentoring may be fulfilled in a variety of ways by individuals within the institution from other departments or from individuals outside the institution.
The quality of mentoring and support within the research experience is essential in facilitating students’ technical and intellectual proficiency, as well as in shaping their understanding of the professional work and practice of science (Feldman et al., 2009, 2012; Thiry and Laursen, 2011). Regardless of who is serving in the role(s) of mentor, there are rarely criteria for selecting or evaluating them, and it is not clear that all professionals will
make good mentors. In some circumstances, there can be conflict and dysfunction; however, this is not frequently investigated (Johnson, 2002). Also, mentors often do not participate in training to obtain a baseline knowledge about and skills in mentoring. Traditionally, the only experience required for being a research mentor is having been mentored, regardless of whether the experience was negative or positive (Handelsman et al., 2005).
Mentors can play many roles. On a practical level, mentors can assign research tasks and construct research experiences that are appropriate to the mentees’ skills and understanding of disciplinary content. Mentors can introduce relevant concepts and skills, as well as provide a way for thinking about research. The responsibility of a mentor includes monitoring progress of the student’s research experience (this can be done informally or through formal assessment), facilitating their participation within the lab or other research environment, and providing guidance on the student’s future educational or career pathways. This guidance can include assisting students with gaining employment. Moreover, mentors can help students develop a variety of skills through the mentor-mentee relationship. The development of these skills may be different for students in community college settings, as students often face different obstacles and may enter with lower levels of academic preparation (Bailey and Alfonso, 2005; Crisp, 2010). As shown in Figure 5-1, these skills include such things as research skills, interpersonal skills, diversity-focused/culturally focused skills, psychosocial skills, and sponsorship skills (Abedin et al., 2012; Pfund et al., 2016; Ragins and Kram, 2007).
A primary goal of many mentoring programs is to encourage persistence in STEM through the development of a set of attributes such as STEM identity, research self-efficacy, and acceptance of cultural diversity, which can be accomplished through the mentor-mentee relationship (Byars-Winston et al., 2015; Chang et al., 2011; Chemers et al., 2011; Estrada et al., 2011; Hurtado et al., 2009; McGee and Keller, 2007; Seymour et al., 2011). Figure 5-1 lists some general roles that mentors can play to help students develop these skills; however, not all mentors work to develop these skills. For instance, for students to develop psychosocial skills, mentors need to show students the positive aspects of participating in STEM research and being a part of the group of people who work together to research a particular topic. Being part of a team environment could provide social incentives to students to become more engaged, enabling students to develop an identity as a STEM researcher.
The research on faculty mentoring in general has focused on the development of skills through the lens of three main domains: career functions,
psychosocial functions, and role-modeling. Career functions refer to the roles mentors play to prepare an individual for advancement within an organization or along a career path, making sure that the student has the appropriate educational background and training for that path. For example, mentors may help undergraduates develop research presentations for local student symposia or national conferences and include them in the preparation of manuscripts for publication, as well as fostering the professional and networking skills that will help them gain employment (Dinham and Scott, 2001; Mullen et al., 2000; Young et al., 2004). Psychosocial functions include the emotional roles a mentor plays to build an interpersonal relationship with the mentee, to help that mentee grow professionally and personally. For example, implicit acceptance of the student by the mentor into the STEM disciplinary community will build the
self-confidence of the mentee. Research has suggested that mentees judge this form of mentoring as crucial and assign it greater value than mentoring that focuses on career functions (Young et al., 2004). Role modeling is demonstrating effective attitudes and behaviors that can help a mentee succeed in a given context, making sure that the student is aware of the social norms for the STEM community or other group that the mentee plans to join (Ragins and Kram, 2007).
For mentors working with undergraduates engaged in research, roles have been described across all three of these domains. Thiry and Laursen (2011) described three sets of roles that emerged from their qualitative studies: professional socialization, intellectual support, and personal/emotional support. They found that mentors provided professional socialization by helping mentees learn disciplinary knowledge and skills, setting and aligning expectations, and modeling behaviors and norms. They also reported that mentors provide intellectual support to their mentees on their research project, helping them learn the methods of research and applying those methods. Finally, Thiry and Laursen (2011) stated that undergraduates reported valuing the personal/emotional support the mentor provided while becoming a trusted advisor, consistent with the earlier study by Young and colleagues (2004).
The need for mentors to play specific roles varies with each individual relationship and across the phases of the relationship (Kram, 1985). Moreover, as stated previously, it is unlikely that any single mentor can tackle all of these roles within a given mentoring relationship; it is more likely that multiple mentors will serve the roles needed to meet the targeted goals for a given individual at a given point in their life. Yet, little is known about which specific roles are related to particular outcomes across student populations, as UREs do not generally carry out an assessment of the mentors or mentoring relationships (Lunsford et al., 2017). Given the variability across mentoring roles with URE type, institution, and discipline, the generalizability of results can be limited (Crisp, 2010; Eagan et al., 2013). However, in recent years, there have been calls from funding agencies to evaluate and improve mentoring relationships for trainees (i.e., National Institute of General Medical Sciences [NIGMS], National Science Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Sloan Foundation). For example, an initiative led by NIGMS seeks “to develop, implement, assess and disseminate innovative and effective approaches to engaging, training and mentoring students; enhancing faculty development, and strengthening institutional research training infrastructure to enhance the participation and persistence of individuals from underrepresented backgrounds in biomedical research careers.”3
3 See https://www.nigms.nih.gov/training/dpc/Pages/default.aspx [February 2017].
The bulk of the research on mentoring has focused on the mentee’s perception and outcomes, with only a few studies discussing the effects on the mentor. In general, this research on mentors is predominantly on faculty mentors and indicates that mentoring has a positive impact on the mentor’s perception of career success, career satisfaction, and career commitment (see Cox, 1997). Though there is less research about the benefits of being a mentor, a productive mentee may lead to increased productivity for research mentors (Campbell and Campbell, 2000; Dolan and Johnson, 2009). An important finding is that faculty members often volunteer as undergraduate research mentors, and their interest in volunteering includes achieving satisfaction, attracting good students, developing a professional network, and extending one’s contributions (National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, 1997). Examples of other benefits to mentors include a sense of personal fulfillment through knowledge and skill sharing, sharpening of leadership skills, career preparation, and cognitive growth (Dolan and Johnson, 2009; Eagan et al., 2013; Laursen et al., 2010). Although the bulk of the research on effects on mentors applies to faculty members, it is possible that many of these same outcomes could apply to other mentors, such as research scientists and engineers, corporate professionals, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, lecturers, and lab managers.
The frequency and quality of mentee-mentor interactions has been positively correlated with students’ persistence in STEM degree programs (Nagda et al., 1998), and mentoring has been found to improve, directly or indirectly, GPA and persistence in college (Bordes-Edgar et al., 2011; Campbell and Campbell, 1997). The associations were even stronger for students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups than for students in general. For undergraduates, engagement in mentored research experiences in STEM has been positively correlated with self-reported gains in research skills and productivity as well as with retention in STEM (see Linn et al., 2015, for a recent review).
Crisp (2010) used structural equation modeling to examine the different factors that were predictive of persistence in community college settings. This analysis found that mentoring was an integral part of the theoretical framework predicting student persistence, and there was a direct positive relationship with mentoring experience and the student’s ability to inte-
grate socially and academically at the institution. Although, Crisp found no significant predictors of student persistence, including mentoring, which suggests that the current perspectives used regarding mentoring within four-year institutions may not be relevant for community college students, additional research is still needed to identify the role and effectiveness of mentoring in community college settings.
In addition to persistence in STEM, mentoring has also been positively associated with students’ identity and confidence as a STEM professional and their sense of belonging (Byars-Winston et al., 2015; Chemers et al., 2011; Dolan and Johnson, 2009; Eagan et al., 2013; Hernandez et al., 2016; Lopatto, 2007; Paglis et al., 2006; Thiry and Laursen, 2011). These outcomes have primarily been documented in historically underrepresented groups (Hathaway et al., 2002; Junge et al., 2010; Nagda et al., 1998; Thiry and Laursen, 2011) and may result from exposing students to an affirming experience in the context and the culture of STEM and its community of practice (Hunter et al., 2007; Laursen et al., 2010). Chapter 4 has additional discussion of the reported outcomes.
Effective mentoring relationships that focus on the psychosocial components have been associated with an increase in the mentee’s perception and satisfaction with the relationship (Tenenbaum et al., 2001; Waldeck et al., 1997). That is, students perceived themselves as more competent, identified as a STEM researcher, and saw value in the work (Walkdeck et al., 1997). Other studies have concluded that the quality of the mentoring relationship, as well as the attributes of the mentor, can have a significant impact on the student’s perception of the URE and ultimately on persistence in STEM (Johnson, 2002; Johnson and Huwe, 2003; Liang et al., 2002; Nagda et al., 1998). For example, mentors who intentionally model ethical behavior, kindness, and competence are perceived as exhibiting outstanding mentor qualities (Johnson, 2002; Mullen et al., 2000; Rice and Brown, 1990). Moreover, negative student-faculty interactions can be detrimental and result in a loss of interest in persisting in STEM (Barker, 2009; Thiry and Laursen, 2011).
Byars-Winston and colleagues (2015) used archival data from more than 400 protégés, collected from 2005 through 2011 from several undergraduate biology research programs at a large, Midwestern research university. Path analysis of a subset of the data (which included 77 percent underrepresented racial/ethnic minorities) showed that perceived mentor effectiveness indirectly predicted enrollment in science-related doctoral or medical degree programs through research self-efficacy as the intermediate factor.
Different mentoring functions, such as socioemotional (e.g., psychological support) and instrumental (e.g., research task support), have been positively associated with both students’ identity as a STEM professional,
specifically their sense of belonging in the discipline, and their confidence in functioning as STEM professionals (research self-efficacy) (Byars-Winston et al., 2015; Chemers et al., 2011; Dolan and Johnson, 2009; Lopatto, 2007; Paglis et al., 2006; Thiry and Laursen, 2011). These factors have also been associated with increased interest in and commitment to research careers (Hunter et al., 2007). UREs have been associated with an increase in undergraduate student interest, motivation, and preparedness for research careers, with a positive mentoring relationship often cited as a key factor in these outcomes (Eagan et al., 2013; Hernandez et al., 2016; Lopatto, 2007; Seymour et al., 2011).
Student Outcomes for Historically Underrepresented Groups
For students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, mentorship has been positively correlated with enhanced recruitment into graduate school and research-related career pathways (Hathaway et al., 2002; Junge et al., 2010; Nagda et al., 1998; Thiry and Laursen, 2011). Interestingly, the effect of whether or not a student is matched with a mentor of the same race and gender is not clear (Russell et al., 2007); Hernandez and colleagues (2016) found no effect. In another study, students ranked having a mentor in their field with higher importance than race or gender concordance (Lee, 1999). However, some research suggests that underrepresented undergraduate and graduate students experience more positive attitudes toward research when they are mentored by female faculty or faculty of color (Frierson et al., 1994; Gandara and Maxwell-Jolly, 1999). Blake-Beard and colleagues (2011) found that female and racial/ethnic minority mentees in STEM reported experiencing more psychosocial and instrumental help, as well as more role model support, when paired with a mentor with whom they had race or gender concordance. The value of concordant mentoring relationships simply by gender has also been reported (Johnson-Bailey and Cervero, 2004). However, the ability to match students with mentors who share cultural similarities and come from the same field would require a level of cultural diversity among STEM mentors that does not yet exist.
Recent research indicated that cultural diversity must be considered in mentoring relationships. For example, Byars-Winston and colleagues (2015) found that historically underrepresented students were more likely than their ethnic-majority mentors to agree that cultural diversity matters should be addressed in research mentoring relationships. This is supported by research showing that mentors of historically underrepresented mentees needed to recognize the potential for colorblind attitudes, which could lead to a better understanding of underlying biases, and seek to better incorporate nondominant views into the research mentoring relationship (Prunuske et al., 2013).
The studies described provide insight into how mentoring works. However, they do not fully examine the complex nature of research mentoring relationships and their impact on undergraduates. Therefore, theoretically grounded, validated measures are needed to assess the quality and effectiveness of research mentoring relationships and to identify factors that shape a successful research mentoring experience (Byars-Winston et al., 2015; Pfund et al., 2016). Currently, there are few metrics available to assess the effectiveness of research mentoring relationships at various career stages, with diverse mentees, across varied types of research mentoring relationships and across career stages. A handful of scales have been developed that are designed to assess the mentor’s self-reported knowledge and skills as a mentor (e.g., Fleming et al., 2012; Pfund et al., 2006, 2014); to assess a mentor’s skills, knowledge, and behaviors from the mentees’ perspective (e.g., Berk et al., 2005; Byars-Winston et al., 2015; Eagan et al., 2013; Hunter et al., 2009; Lopatto, 2004; Weston and Laursen, 2015); and to assess the effectiveness or quality of the mentoring relationship overall (e.g., Berk et al., 2005; Hernandez et al., 2016). Although these scales hold some promise, there is much work to be done to develop and validate metrics that can be used to identify causal links between the quality of mentoring and the career outcomes of mentees.
In the absence of solid evidence for how to be a good mentor, decisions must be made based on the available information and resources. Many mentoring programs in support of UREs are developed to promote retention of STEM students from their freshmen year to their sophomore year, as well as to increase retention of historically underrepresented students (Campbell, 2007). Box 5-2 presents an evaluation of the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), developed by the University of Michigan (Nagda et al., 1998). This program uses mentoring by both peers and faculty as a mechanism to ameliorate high attrition rates and has shown promising results specifically for African American students and for sophomores.
Practical approaches to improving the quality of mentoring programs include making prospective mentors aware of the many dimensions of this role, as described above. In particular, programs have been developed to coach peers and near-peers in how to be better mentors to beginners in research. For example, with support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Handelsman and colleagues (2005) developed and disseminated a program called Entering Mentoring: A Seminar to Train a New
Generation of Scientists. In addition, Packard (2016) published a guide, Successful STEM Mentoring Initiatives for Underrepresented Students: A Research-Based Guide for Faculty and Administrators, which provides readers with practical questions and case studies to guide those who wish to develop programs through the process. Colleges and universities (e.g., see Boston University’s Mentoring Training in the Sciences and Engineering program4) have also developed and disseminated mentoring training programs throughout various networks, such as the Center for the Integration
of Research, Teaching and Learning Network.5 Workshops hosted by colleges and universities could be another avenue to support the development of mentoring skills for their faculty.
Mentees and mentors engage as partners through reciprocal activities such as planning, acting, reflecting, questioning, and problem solving. The success of each relationship can be defined as achieving alignment in goals toward a desired career outcome for the mentee, whether or not that career aspiration is to become a STEM professional, and a sense of accomplishment for the mentor in having provided valuable guidance. Mentors can range from peers to very senior professionals; each has important insights to bring to the relationship. Consequently, mentees should be encouraged to seek out multiple mentors. Moreover, mentors can play many roles. The need for mentors to play specific roles varies with each individual relationship and across the phases of the relationship. Little is known about which specific roles have the greatest impact, and mentors may need to seek out opportunities for professional development to ensure a high-quality mentoring relationship. However, in some cases these opportunities may be difficult to find or may still need to be developed for dissemination. Although there is limited causal evidence to show the effects mentoring has on persistence in STEM, there is significant descriptive data showing the many positive effects that mentoring can have on academic success and persistence in STEM, as well as developing a sense of belonging and confidence to function as a STEM researcher.
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