While much is written about various approaches and activities grad students can use to keep engaged and motivated and to succeed (such as wonderful advice provided here, here, here, here, and in many other articles and posts), one particular useful activity that is often overlooked is mentoring junior students.
Nearly always, there are undergrads (and professional Masters students) looking for research experience. Nearly always, a graduate student can define a research project within their own larger-scale research that is perfectly suitable for an undergrad to play with. A graduate student that takes on this challenge does a lot of good not only for the undergraduates, PIs, school (and the society in general), they also stand to gain much from it themselves.
There are many obvious benefits to mentoring students:
- Developing and perfecting professional communication skills,
- Getting more work done,
- Getting experience managing projects,
- A sense of giving back to the community, and
- A great CV line
being some of them.
However, the following benefits, not as obvious at the first glance, are just as important:
- It will continuously boost your motivation — Much is known about “post-quals slump” and other fundamental motivation issues having to do with the lack of deadlines and the sheer size of PhD dissertations. These issues keep graduate students escaping work, mentally or physically, for months on end. If you work with undergrads, this will not happen to you. Seeing how many deadlines the undergrads have and how they juggle their multiple commitments, you will simply be ashamed to slack off. The student you are working with is sending you a report tomorrow and has two exams next week. She will be working her hardest without complaining, and you will be constantly reminded that you have worked just as hard to get where you are. Will you still feel like joining that Nth happy hour this week?
- You will understand your adviser much better — Ever get frustrated when your adviser gives you feedback that is, in your opinion, harsh? Or research directions that you find unclear? Or when she or he seemingly expects you to put in 300 hours per week? You will very soon find out how and why this happens — from an adviser’s point of view. In fact, if you spend enough time mentoring students, you will experience being on the adviser side of nearly all situations. Ever wonder what goes through your adviser’s head when she or he is listening to your talk? How the adviser reads what you write? What she or he think when you screw up? You will find out — and chances are, you will find the perspective enlightening.
Overall, having worked with several undergraduate and M.S. students in the last few years, I strongly recommend taking on this challenge. Mentoring students, and taking it seriously, is one of the best possible activities to becoming an independent researcher, rather than a student, and one of the best exposures to a PI-like experience a graduate student can have.
- A couple of slides with references to important resources on career and research management for new Ph.D. students. I put this together for the 2012 Graduate Student Panel for Women in Engineering, conducted as part of new graduate student orientation in the Columbia University School of Engineering.
With my deepest gratitude to the students who trusted me to supervise their research projects, with the most special thanks to Enlin Xu, Michael Zapas, Mina Cong, Sonal Shetkar, Chang Sun, Kanghwan Kim, Craig Gutter, Haodan Huang, Hari Subedi, and Albert Maldonado.