Research Mentoring Guidelines for Underrepresented Students

Mentoring has long been seen as an effective way of recruiting and retaining students in STEM fields. Certain types of mentoring have shown to be particularly helpful for underrepresented minority (URM) students. A national study of over 170 URM undergraduate and graduate students in engineering provided some useful insights for faculty who work with URM students in research settings (Allendoerfer & Yellin, 2011; Yellin, Allendoerfer & Miller, in press). The following ideas emerged from this study:

  • There is a discrepancy between what URM students perceive as good mentoring practices and what they have actually experienced.
  • Mentoring in engineering research has a significant impact on URM students' persistence in engineering by increasing students' confidence and their knowledge or awareness of the field.
  • "Informal" mentoring often has the greatest or longest lasting impact, and appears to be particularly beneficial for URM students

Are Mentoring Experiences Meeting Students' Needs?

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In many cases, URM students are not finding what they hoped for in a mentoring experience. It is likely that many mentors already do follow the above practices and make concerted efforts to establish rapport, communicate, and make students feel comfortable and respected. However, for each of the above mentoring practices (except for the mentor's expertise in the subject area) less than half of the respondents "strongly agreed" that the practice had actually been part of their own mentoring experience.

What Can I do as a Mentor?

Consider the Mentoring Practices That Students Feel Are Most Valuable

“I’ve had a lot of issues with doubt over the years – doubting my ability and whether I am actually cut out for a career in engineering research.  This interaction, and my ability to converse with [my mentor] as an equal, really stood out for me.  It made me realize that I can do this, and I’m as qualified as anyone else.-male graduate student

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The large majority of our study participants rated the following practices (in this order) as the most important or valuable elemants of a good research mentoring experience:

  1. The mentor provides honest feedback on students' work.
  2. Students feel comfortable asking their mentor to meet or talk.
  3. The mentor welcomes students to meet and talk often.
  4. The mentor respects and acknowledges the contributions of students to the research project.
  5. Students receive clear direction from the mentor.
  6. The mentor has expertise in the subject area of the student's research.
  7. The mentor is in touch with students frequently.
  8. The mentor advocates for students' needs and interests.

Although every student-mentor relationship is different, the broad cross-section of students represented in our sample study sent a strong message that the above practices are very important to URM engineering students across the country.

Try "Informal" Mentoring

“My mentor and I established a relationship outside of my research, which make it easy to build rapport and trust.  Without this rapport, I would not have opened up about research, personal life, etc. … My mentor believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.  My mentor was great for motivation and perseverance.  Because of my mentor, I persisted.  -female post-doctoral associate

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Our study found that “informal” mentoring practices had the greatest impact on URM students’ decisions to remain in engineering fields.  By “informal” mentoring we refer to interactions during a student’s research experience that involve the research mentor, but are not explicitly related to the procedures or content of the research project at hand.  According to our respondents, these are typically one-on-one interactions and may include conversations about career or academic pathways, discussions about the broader field, or support during academic or personal struggles.  Within these parameters, the mentoring interactions can take various forms, such as brief conversations between students and mentors, in or out of the research setting, or other interactions in which the mentor demonstrates an interest in or concern for the student as a whole person. 

Even interactions that seem brief or insignificant to the mentor can have unexpectedly far-reaching results.  This is illustrated by the large number of graduate students and post-docs in our study who chose to describe informal mentoring interactions that took place during their undergraduate years, and cited those interactions as the primary reason for where they are today.

"But That's Not My Job"

You may be thinking that, even if these informal interactions sound nice, they’re not really “mentoring,” or they’re not part of your already overloaded job description.  That’s understandable, especially given the current promotion and tenure systems in many departments that do not explicitly reward these types of interactions. 

However, we suggest that if faculty change how we think about mentoring, using a “community of practice” perspective, informal interactions might then seem like a logical, integral part of research mentoring (see below).

The "Community of Practice" Perspective

“My project supervisor and I went on a trip to interview our project participants and the experience really opened my eyes to all the possibilities of research.  She was just very encouraging of the project and very helpful to my efforts. I will definitely continue to be involved in engineering research. She is very knowledgeable about engineering possibilities and she helps me to understand my possibilities.-female undergraduate

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Mentoring can be thought of as facilitating students’ entry into a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998, 2006).  Students taking STEM courses are “legitimate peripheral participants” in these STEM fields, gaining knowledge and skills but not yet fully participating in the community of practice.  Full participant status might be indicated by a relevant degree (a marker of knowledge of the “shared domain”) and employment in a related field (a marker of active “practice”).

But to reach those degrees and careers, students first need familiarity with the pathways that lead to engineering degrees and careers.  Some students come to college already very familiar with these pathways.  They know what possibilities exist and what they need to do to get there, and they have the necessary support to keep them on the pathways they choose.  However, other students arrive with much less background knowledge or support, and even if they have great potential to be successful engineers or scientists, they often need guidance or encouragement to find and stay on pathways to success. 


Learn More

Allendoerfer, C. & Yellin, J.M. (2011).  Investigating best practices in the research mentoring of underrepresented minority students in engineering: The impact of informal interactions.  In Proceedings of the American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference, Vancouver, BC, June 2011.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991).  Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E. (1998).  Communities of practice:  Learning, meaning and identity.  New York: Cambridge University Press. 

Wenger, E. (2006).  Communities of practice: A brief introduction.  Retrieved from

Yellin, J.M., Allendoerfer, C., & Miller, L. (in press).  Investigating best practices in the research mentoring of underrepresented minority students in engineering. 


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