Are you looking for a mentoring opportunity? Whether you are interested in a career in academia or industry, you should be.
A recent University of Washington (CIRGE) study of PhDs five years after the attainment of their doctorates found that PhD students generally feel well prepared for careers both inside and outside of academia, but additional training in essential professional competencies is still needed. Managing people and projects ranked high on this list, with 31% of respondents in academia and 47% of respondents in the public and private sectors rating this skill as “very important” but only 3% of the respondents rating their training in these areas as “excellent.” Acting as a mentor while you are in grad school can help narrow this gap.
The problem is, opportunities for graduate students to serve as mentors can be hard to come by. That’s why Graduate College Educational Equity Programs and the Office of Undergraduate Research joined forces to start the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program at the University of Illinois (URAP). Now in its second year, URAP offers the opportunity for first- and second-year undergraduate students to assist graduate students who are ABD with their research projects.
Hear what some of our inaugural mentors and mentees had to say about their mentoring experience with URAP at a recent panel discussion:
Emily DeFilippo, PhD student in Spanish and Portuguese, mentor to Madeline:. “My background is in education and I taught as a high school teacher for many years. After graduate school, I hope to pursue a teaching-focused career so the opportunity to work with undergraduate students was appealing to me.”
Madeline Decker, double major in English and Spanish, Emily’s mentee: “There’s a lot of opportunities for people to do STEM research but not a lot of opportunities in the humanities, I wanted to seize the opportunity to do research in fields I’m very interested in.”
Ishva Minefee, PhD student in Business and former SPI fellow, mentor to Mecca: “Mentoring is a skill that’s not really taught in grad school. For those of us who want to be faculty members, this is a great opportunity to develop the skills needed to be a good mentor.”
Mecca Muhammad, Global Studies major, Ishva’s mentee: “I didn’t have a lot of research experience and I wanted to have this knowledge to know how to conduct research.”
What was something you learned from your URAP mentoring experience?
Ishva: She’s (Mecca’s) very inquisitive and asks a lot of questions. I wasn’t able to immediately answer all her questions the way I wanted to. But I learned to point her in the direction she needed to go when needed. That was a big lesson.
Mecca: I learned to be open to change. So many things have changed and morphed and I’ve learned to be a lot more flexible. If something else were thrown into the mix, I’d be thrown for a bit but then learn to work around that.
What were the biggest challenges you faced during your semester of research and how did you overcome them or move forward with them?
Madeline: Overall the program went smoothly, except that in literature studies, we don’t really make research posters. So I had this challenge to do something that isn’t really done (in my field) which ended up being really cool. I had to think about a way to make textual research accessible and interesting and that would be engaging to people who maybe aren’t familiar with the literature.
Emily: As graduate students, we’re under pressure, we’re researching and trying to work on the dissertation and also teaching. I had to be organized enough to help Madeline help me. Preparing those tasks in advance was a challenge.
Mecca: Two challenges, first with the actual software, which was not familiar to me, and I had lots of technical issues. Second, I had a hard time asking for help and that really was an issue for me but I learned to become more comfortable with my mentor. Ishva showed me that having questions was perfectly fine. Research isn’t a smooth-sailing perfect experience. I learned a lot about myself and how to ask for help.
Ishva: As a grad mentor, I came in with a game plan. Recognizing that some things get set back was hard. Learning how to accept that and to adapt to those delays and to overcome them was really important for me.
After participating in URAP, how do you feel about mentoring?
Ishva: I see being a mentor as being a jack of all trades. It’s one thing to show a mentee the research process, which is expected in the program, but you should also talk to them about their career, personal things going on, social things going on, technical issues. Developing the skills to do all of these things at once is what I see as a good mentor.
Emily: I feel very fortunate to have had this experience as a graduate student. I feel more prepared getting ready to move forward toward getting a career as a professor. It’s something I’d recommend wholeheartedly to any graduate student.
How did your mentoring experience differ from your experience teaching in the classroom?
Emily: I’ve taught almost every semester I’ve been here. When you are teaching you have maybe as many as 50-60 students. Interaction is on an as-needed basis. When it’s one-on-one, you can work on a personal and individual connection. Another thing is that when you are reviewing a student for a grade, it changes the relationship. Here, we’re doing research for research’s sake.
Ishva: In my teaching and mentoring, I try to be very approachable, accessible. If you want to talk to me about class, about the career, things in your life, I’m open to that. I try to maintain that in my interactions throughout.
What is one piece of advice you’d give to someone embarking on an opportunity to be a mentor?
The mentors and mentees from URAP's inaugural year.
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Mecca: Go for something outside of your major, go with something you are interested in. I am in the Global Studies program and we focus on a lot of different issues. Now I know how to be a better consumer and a better researcher than if I had focused just in my department and in my area.
Ishva: Take a special interest in your mentee, it’s one thing to talk about the research project but it’s another to really get to know what they are interested in. We talked about her career before the semester even started and now I can help look for opportunities for her.
Emily: Listen to the mentee. Instead of being like “here’s the answers,” help guide the student to where they are trying to go, and help them form the questions in an effective way, as opposed to imposing your own questions and your own answers.
Madeline: Be confident in yourself and in your ability but don’t be afraid to ask questions.
In addition to recruiting undergraduate researchers, the program provides a workshop and seminar series for graduate mentors in the fall, designed to help them plan and prepare to make the most of the semester-long spring apprenticeship.
Graduate student mentors are now being recruited and will begin the program in Fall 2016; undergraduate students will begin work with their mentors in Spring 2017. The application deadline for graduate student mentors is July 1, so don’t delay!
Undergraduate students from U.S. minority populations under-represented at Illinois and Graduate students with significant and proven experience working with these populations are encouraged to apply.