Today’s post is about mentoring remotely. It can be very difficult, and it might feel very different than getting to mentor in person. Especially with other limitations granted by COVID – such as lab work and field work limitations – it might even feel impossible. But it is not! I have total confidence that you can provide good mentorship via video chat to undergrads.
I have mentored remotely in the time of COVID, but I have also mentored remotely because I was traveling for lab work or conferences and would be gone for extended periods of time from my home institutions. In either case, the following ideas can help you keep you and your mentees on track.
Part one – set realistic goals (and keep track of them). For many reasons, it is just not as easy or as possible to work remotely the same way as you would work in person. That’s OK. Set new goals that are more achievable in a remote setting. This might be the easy part. The hard part is for everyone to keep track of them. The hardest thing for me when I am mentoring remotely, is keeping track of everyone when I can’t see them in person everyday as they go about their tasks. Instead, I get lost in what I have asked students to do and what they have asked me to do. For this, I suggest a few different things. If you are like me and prefer a physical space to write down thoughts – then I suggest a white board or a project notebook where you write down the goals for the students, what they have asked you to do, etc. Keep updating this and have it organized by person. If you prefer virtual versions of this, you can share a virtual document or a Jamboard that everyone can edit, and update based on their progress. Finally, there are project management software systems that allow you to track goals, time, tasks etc. These are usually not free, but many of them have free trials. This might help you out quite a bit if you have many students working with you.
Part two – get creative with tasks and how you check in. Especially in the time of COVID – many students may be feeling burned out with zoom check-ups and they may not be especially telling for you as the mentor. What I mean by this, is that it might be hard to evaluate the progress of a student if you just ask them to self-report how they are doing, as opposed to being in a lab setting where you can see if they understand the process they are working on or not. For instance, I tell my advisor I’m fine all the time, who knows if I actually am doing fine? Therefore, I encourage you to replace the zoom check-in with something that is a bit more creative. For instance, I ask students to draw out the process that a paper they are reading is talking about (link to older blog post on this). I’ll ask students to write a mock-conference abstract about their results. Or, to practice explaining the implications of their results to a family member and then journal about what the family member understood or didn’t understand (all as assignments). Obviously, this isn’t for a grade, but it helps me better understand where the students are. I encourage you to get creative in how you ask your students to “check-in” with you – and to not rely on a self-report.
Part three – encourage creativity in your students. Being mentored virtually is hard, its hard on the students and the students sense that is hard on the mentors. Instead of having every conversation with your students be about science or their research, include conversations that encourage creativity. For instance, one of my students decided to get better at watercolors during the COVID lockdown. So, beyond me encouraging her to use watercolors to make first drafts of figures, I also spent a lot of time talking to her about painting. I have also offered to have crafting check-ins with students. No science “talk” necessary, just virtual crafting time.
Finally, be consistent in messaging. This goes along with keeping track of goals, etc. but I find that I am much more prone to making on the fly decisions in a virtual setting. I don’t have as good of a pulse on what is happening in the lab or with people’s work, and so I have a tendency to change things without thinking about the consequences. Instead, set a consistent message about deadlines, tasks, time spent, etc. and stick to it! Easier for the students and easier for you!
I am a Ph.D. Candidate who actively tries to create an equitable and enriching experience for undergraduate researchers, I post weekly about the things I teach and my experiences with undergraduates.