Happy New Year mentors and mentees! I hope this year brings you more security, safety, and health.
Today’s post is about how to start off the new year with either continuing undergraduates in your lab or new undergraduates. The new year is always a good time to check in with students on their goals from the semester/quarter before, to see if anything has changed, and to set new goals.
First, I regularly start mentoring relationships with a discussion on goals. I like to have students list goals they have for research or lab work that they will be doing and also to set goals for after their time with me. This way, I know what they intend on doing after and I can tailor their experience in the lab to provide for that goal. It is always a good idea to check in with students at the halfway point (the holiday break may be halfway for many undergraduate mentoring relationships) and determine if those goals have changed or if they are being accomplished. Many students may not tell you that they have, for instance, decided that grad school isn’t for them after they have spent some time doing research. Instead, you should ask them directly if that is still their goal (in a kind way) so that you can reevaluate the research you are having them do and whether a tweak to the project is appropriate for a career in industry or government.
Second, even if students didn’t have specific goals or trajectories that they wanted to go down when they started off with research, they may see a clearer path before them now. Therefore, the new year is a good time to do some brainstorming of what they need to accomplish to achieve the path they see. To start this off (this can be used at any time of the year), I often ask students to take a few minutes to reflect on the following questions:
1. What was your favorite experience in your undergraduate and why? (can be related to a club, a job, a research position, a class, or a volunteer experience)
2. What kind of thing would you like to do after leaving undergraduate?
3. Is there a way to combine what your favorite experience was and what you see as doing next?
4. Will a type of research or doing research under a certain person help you achieve those goals?
These reflection questions will be discussed with you after they have had some time to sit with them, so make sure you make that clear. The idea of this is for you to help them brainstorm post-undergraduate opportunities that will either be a job they like or fullfills their needs, or is an opportunity to help them find a job that they like. Better understanding their goals will help you tailor your mentoring.
Third, students may be feeling like it is hard to get started again after the holidays. I am in favor of the soft start – no need to make it feel like they have to make up the time that they lost by taking a vacation. That is a toxic aspect to job culture and academia that I wish to wipe out. Instead, allow students time to chat with you about what they did while they were off. In 2021 that might look like what crafts they did, movies they watched, or books they read. But if they were able to see family or get outside in any context, they may want to tell you about that too. In terms of work, start students off slow – they may need some recalibration. Maybe pull out a paper you discussed months ago but is worth revisiting or ask students to start planning lab work instead of sending them straight into the lab. Make sure that students have smaller tasks than what they could have been accomplishing when they were in the groove of things. If you are a student reading this, I also give you permission to start yourself off slow.
Finally, remember to remind yourself and your students’ what tasks you were doing and what tasks you wanted to do first. I find it helpful to make group to-do lists that folks can volunteer for in pieces but that generate conversation on where everything was left off before the holidays.
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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.