Most graduate students and postdocs who choose to mentor undergraduates do so for a combination of reasons, both altruistic and practical. Graduate students recognize how much they have learned in their own transitions between undergraduate and graduate work, and want to help their younger colleagues prepare for such transitions. Many graduate students and postdocs were helped along the way by important mentors, and they want to “give back” by mentoring others. Alternatively, graduate students may recognize deficiencies in their preparation for graduate school (“if only I had known…”) and want to provide timely advice. On the practical side, graduate students and postdocs report that after learning to supervise, they understand their own faculty mentors better. The mentoring experiences help them to reflect on their teaching skills and deficiencies and help them become better professionals. The experiences can provide practical benefits in the humanities and social sciences such as review of an area of literature relevant both to the interests of the undergrad as well as a requirement for a graduate comprehensive exam. In the sciences, the practical benefits can extend to one or more additional co-authored publications as a consequence of the undergraduate project, in addition to demonstrating one’s abilities to manage the work of others.
There are also many responsibilities associated with mentoring an undergraduate. Initially, it is important to consider how to connect the project with what the student already knows, and how to instill an intellectual interest in the work. The mentor and mentee need to agree on both the work schedule and also on how the work will be supervised and evaluated. Although the faculty advisor is ultimately responsible for adhering to university guidelines regarding laboratory safety and research with human subjects (see sections devoted to these topics in the Faculty section), it is important for the graduate mentor to understand the requirements and helping the undergraduate to understand them also.