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March 25, 2021

Advisory capacity: Class helps grad students learn to mentor undergrad researchers

Written By: Jason Daley

Graduate students and postdocs in the chemical and biological engineering department master all sorts of sophisticated tasks, from calibrating complex machines to synthesizing new proteins. But there is one critical skill that their education often doesn’t directly address: managing and mentoring other people.

 Andrew Greenberg
Andrew Greenberg

A good mentor can help guide the course of a career, open doors to new opportunities and accelerate growth and learning; a bad relationship with a mentor can lead to unneeded stress, or worse, push someone out of research completely. That’s why Andrew Greenberg, distinguished faculty associate, runs a one-credit research mentor training practicum for grad students to help them create a meaningful experience for the undergrad researchers who often work alongside them in the lab.

The one-semester course, offered three times per year, is aimed at helping grad students in chemical and biological engineering and other disciplines within the College of Engineering understand how to establish healthy relationships with junior researchers and handle problems that might arise while dealing with undergrads. “For new researchers, they’re entering a whole new culture,” Greenberg explains. “It’s a new educational paradigm for our undergraduates in particular. They’re going from taking in knowledge in their courses to generating knowledge in their research. So, it’s completely turning around their academic experience.”

Having a good mentor early on can help smooth that transition. The practicum is limited to 15 participants and takes the form of a group discussion, following a curriculum based on Entering Mentoring, a widely used text on mentoring in STEM fields developed at UW-Madison by Christine Pfund, Janet Branchaw and Jo Handelsman. During the practicum, students work through case studies in the book and discuss real-life scenarios happening in their own labs.

There is not just one way to be a good mentor, Greenberg says, something that the curriculum acknowledges. “I’ve learned that there are multiple ways to approach mentoring because mentoring is really going to be personality-driven,” he says. “We want to give participants a toolbox of mentoring ideas and approaches that work for them and their mentee.”

 Entering Mentoring book
Credit: Macmillan Learning.

One of the key concepts, however, is universal; much of the work of mentoring is done up front by establishing clear lines of communication and creating an agreed upon set of expectations for both the mentor and the mentee, a kind of roadmap that can guide the relationship. In some cases, that’s developed through informal conversations. Others choose to draw up an actual mentor-mentee contract, laying out in detail each party’s goals and expectations.

While training grad students to become better mentors benefits the undergraduates they supervise, Greenberg says the course enables the grad students to develop more positive relationships with their own advisors and other researchers. “The major outcome of this really is that the graduate students and postdocs learn how to take a role in their own mentoring and to talk to their advisors,” he says. “They’re proactive in saying what they need as mentees. There’s been positive outcomes beyond just working with the undergraduates. When mentoring is strong, productivity in the lab is stronger.”

Greenberg’s class isn’t the only mentoring program on campus. Several sections of the practicum are offered as Integrated Science 660 in other colleges in conjunction with WISCIENCE, a university-sponsored collaborative which advocates for improved STEM education. Over the course of the last decade, hundreds of grad students have taken the course.

Mentoring is actually a campus wide strength, and UW-Madison is a national thought leader when it comes to STEM mentoring. It’s home to the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research, a project developed to study and improve mentoring relationships in the sciences. UW-Madison Department of Medicine professor Angela Byers-Winston recently chaired a National Academy of Sciences report on mentoring in STEM which included CIMER director Christine Pfund and other UW mentoring advocates on the study committee.

While getting grad students to think about mentoring early in their careers is useful, faculty members can also benefit from a mentoring tune-up. Greenberg says he led a faculty version of the practicum in spring of 2019 and 12 researchers from across the campus participated. “One of the things I love about the faculty on this campus is that they are focused on helping their students do better and become better researchers, better students, better academics, and really help them to move on to the next stage in their careers,” he says. “That’s wonderful to see. They look at students as a priority.”