Hiring/Mentoring Undergrads

Hiring an undergrad:

It’s a good time to hire an undergrad when:

  1. You have a defined project ready for them.
    1. The project has a limited skill set that the undergrad will be able to quickly master and make good progress on. A project with too many skill requirements will mean that you spend a lot of time doing hands-on teaching and don’t get much productivity in the end. This will make it difficult for you to write a letter for them later, since they never got the opportunity to truly capitalize on their learning.
    2. The project is safe for an undergrad to do.
    3. You care about the project. Don’t give an undergrad a throw-away project. Having an undergrad on a project is going to force you to think about that project and pay attention to it every single day for the first few months. After that, the investment will start to pay off, and work will get done without you being there. At the beginning, though, make sure that you are invested in putting in the effort to train the undergrad well.
  2. You have time to commit to training the undergrad.
    1. In general, taking an undergrad before your qual is not advisable. You are still teaching and should be focused on your own work. Mentoring undergrads, especially at the beginning, is a huge time-sink (on the order of a teaching position), and should not be taken lightly.
  3. You have talked to your PI about their expectations for undergrads in the lab. Each PI has very different expectations for undergrads and philosophies about what undergraduate research is for and about. Be sure that you understand your PIs expectations.

If you can avoid it, try not to let your PI pick the undergrad for you. The undergrad is going to work primarily with you, so you want to make sure that they fit well with your research style. If your PI prefers to make the decision, ask to be involved in the process. Explain that you want to learn how they assess undergrads and interview them.

Interviewing an undergrad:

Before they come, ask for:

  • Their class schedule (for the summer/semester they will start)
  • Transcript
  • Resume
  • One letter of recommendation – a GSI is fine, or if they have previous research experience, have their mentor write a letter

Topics to discuss:

  • Have them explain previous research experience, even just class-lab experience is fine, as long as they can articulate something interesting that they have done. Ask them questions about it and figure out if they understand what they did.
  • What are their career goals? Why? What do they see as stepping stones to getting there?
  • What is their motivation for pursuing an undergraduate research position?
  • Why do they want to work for you, specifically?
  • What are their expectations about how much time they can commit to research? If these expectations seem unreasonable to you, be very up front about that.
  • What other major commitments do they have right now? Will those change significantly over the next year? Are they taking classes? In a club? How much time will that take?
  • Explain the project that is available. Pay attention to whether they ask questions about it (if they are nodding uhuh, uhuh the whole time, that might be fine, but it might not be). If they don’t ask questions, ask them to ask questions about it.
  • Explain your expectations for them (see the “set expectations” section, below).
  • At the end of the interview, set a timeline. Let them know how soon you will be able to give them an offer, and ask how soon they will be able to respond to the offer (NEVER give an offer during an interview – the human brain is extremely good at processing information subconsciously, and you need to give your brain time to let those hunches and realizations surface; sit on the decision for at least one night. Additionally, it’s best to ask for a final go-ahead from your PI before sending an offer email.). When you do send an offer email, set a deadline for how soon you want a response from them.

Set expectations:

  • Number of hours in lab (this varies by lab, but a good benchmark is the following):
    • 12 h/week in the school year + mandatory group meeting attendance
    • 40 h/week in the summer for 10 weeks (or 400 hours total over the course of the summer – set the schedule ahead of time!) + mandatory group meeting attendance
  • Reading papers
    • Suggested workload: ~4-8 papers at the beginning and then 1 every two weeks after that, as needed
  • Arriving on time
    • Undergrads will be operating on Berkeley time. If they say that they are coming in at 10 am, they likely won’t be there until 10:15 am. In the real world, this is not OK. Explain that you operate in real time. If they want to arrive at 10:15 am, that’s fine, but they need to say “10:15 am,” not “10 am.”
  • Compensation (this varies by lab; be SURE to discuss this with your PI ahead of time so that you can communicate this to the undergrad):
    • Typically, the first summer or semester is a trial run. If that goes well, they can ask for class credit for work in subsequent semesters or apply for summer funding in subsequent summers.
  • Evaluation
    • At the end of the first summer or semester, they can expect feedback from you about how things went. You each will have the opportunity to pull out at that time.
    • Explain that making an impression on your PI is also important. Ultimately, your PI decides who works in the lab, not you.

Things to consider:

  • If the undergrad is struggling in classes (lower than a B+ in anything science-related), this is not a good sign. The lower their grades, the more time they are going to need to spend studying and the harder it is going to be for them to spend time in lab.
  • Going to group meeting is really important for undergrads because they will be reading way less than grad students and won’t spend time in lab talking to people. The only exposure they will get to the themes of the lab will be at group meetings. Make sure that the undergrad understands the value of group meetings and is willing to commit to attending.
  • If you are on the fence about who to hire, send each candidate a few papers and ask them to read them and then talk to you about the project. Sometimes this step alone will cause one of them to reconsider. Sometimes both will continue to the second interview. If that happens, pay attention to their reading comprehension and the insightfulness and creativity of their questions.

Mentoring an undergrad:

  • When you first start teaching the undergrad how to do things in lab, pay attention to THEM, not to what you are doing. Are they looking at you? Are they taking notes? (make them at least write down where things are in lab; they will forget, and answering “I can’t find…” questions gets really annoying) Ask if they are understanding you. Ask them if they prefer to learn by watching and taking notes or by doing. In general, a good practice is to show them how to do something first and then immediately have them do the same technique. Watch for every detail of their technique. Are they fully expelling liquid when they pipet? Are they touching the edges of sterile containers? Once they are out of your sight, things will stop working, and you want to be able to trust their technique.
  • An undergrad is a person. They have many commitments outside of lab. They are motivated by compelling projects. Don’t treat them like a tech or like a work-study student. If you want someone to just wash dishes, hire a work-study student.
  • Undergrads don’t know how to keep a notebook. Part of your job is going to be teaching them how to keep a notebook. Consider that the goal for them is to be independent of you. This means that you need to be able to read the notes in their notebook and understand perfectly what they did. Over the course of the first semester, do a couple trial runs: at the end of every week, check their notebook and make sure that it is sufficient. Help them schedule time into their schedule to write in their notebook (ie. don’t make their work schedule so full that they can’t keep a notebook).
  • Undergrads don’t know how to read papers. Part of your job is going to be teaching them how to read papers. In the first email that you send them about papers, explain how you approach reading papers – ie. pay attention to methods, not just results; be critical; etc. Every time that you assign a paper, be sure to go through it with them. Start by asking “What was the paper about?” Get them to explain key experiments – not just the results! Undergrads often fixate on results without reading the methods section. Ask HOW the result was determined. Ask if there are any other possible explanations from the result. Encourage the undergrad to be critical of the result and not just believe things because they are written in a paper.
  • Undergrads don’t know how to get something out of group meeting. For the first few weeks (and after any group meeting that is particularly important/relevant for their research), sit down and talk about the meeting for ~20 minutes. Figure out what they understood and didn’t understand. Give them additional reading to do to help fill in the gaps.
  • Undergrads don’t know how to make a research presentation. Start early. Send them a template of one of your talks so that they use a reasonable font and color scheme. Set a deadline for the first draft of their first talk that is three weeks before the talk (if you think this seems like a long time to prepare, it isn’t). Print the slides, and go through the slides one by one with them, talking about all the things that would be corrected in a GRS and writing your comments on the slides. Get a second draft from the undergrad ~1 week later. Print the slides, and go through them again. Get a third draft from the undergrad 1 week before the talk. Have them practice giving the talk. Give them feedback. ~2 days before the talk, have them practice giving the talk again. Give more feedback. If, at any point during the process, you realize that their understanding of the background is missing some information, give them a key paper or two to read.
  • As the undergrad matures, what they need from you is going to change. At the beginning, things will be very hands-on – you will work with them directly every time they come to lab. As they grow more independent, you are going to have to figure out a good schedule for meeting and a good way for them to produce written reports on what they are doing.
  • This is likely your first mentoring experience. Pay attention to yourself. What makes you angry? What makes you impatient? The attitude that you model is the attitude that your undergrad is going to adopt. If you want them to be honest with you, don’t retaliate against their mistakes. When you make mistakes, be quick to admit them and apologize. Don’t just ignore things that make you uncomfortable.