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How do you support mentee independence in research?

Let’s say that you and your mentee have been working together for some time. The mentee has learned all the techniques needed for their project and feels confident carrying out their research tasks. You know that your mentee is doing work that meets and often exceeds your expectations. You also know that when your mentee has questions, they feel comfortable approaching you to ask for guidance. Given the progress your mentee has made, now could be the time to help your mentee start developing independence as a researcher.

 Independence in research can take many forms. For some mentees, independence might involve deciding what their daily work will be to reach an established research goal. As mentees spend more time doing research, they become capable of planning their time and understanding what tasks should be accomplished when. This type of daily independence is called “operational autonomy” (Bailyn, 1985).

 We can help mentees develop operational autonomy by clearly defining the bounds of a project and setting a timeline for reaching specific milestones. For instance, we can explain a particular research goal, when that goal should be met, and any other expectations that we have for accomplishing the goal. We can also discuss with our mentees whether particular boundaries are necessary or beneficial – such as where different tasks should be done (e.g., can reading, writing, or analysis be done outside of the lab?) and whether more experienced researchers should be nearby and available (e.g., for safety reasons or to provide in-the-moment guidance as needed). Once these expectations are established, we can give our mentees latitude to decide when and how to make progress. For instance, we can encourage mentees to plan their own work schedules and to-do lists.

Initially, our mentees may need some support in becoming operationally autonomous. Strategies we find helpful include:

  • Modeling operational autonomy ourselves by showing our mentees how we plan our research or how we might plan some aspect of their research;
  • Encouraging mentees to talk with other experienced researchers (e.g., advanced graduate students, postdocs) about how they plan their research;
  • Providing structures that support operational autonomy, such as example templates for weekly schedules and task planning;
  • Encouraging mentees to note how much time a task typically takes them and then to use this information to optimize their own planning; and
  • Emphasizing that there are many ways to go about planning and carrying out work. What matters the most to us is that the expectations of the project are met, and that the mentee is designing their own way to accomplish research tasks in a way that works for them.

Another form of independence is called “epistemic involvement.” Having epistemic involvement in research means that the mentee is intellectually responsible for some aspect of their own project (Burgin et al., 2012). Mentees who are epistemically involved have a voice in the progress and overall direction of their project. We can offer opportunities for mentees to become epistemically involved by identifying places where they can contribute to the work and be more than “a set of hands.” In our experience and in our own research, we find that mentees report feeling epistemically involved when they (Pfeifer et al., 2023):

  • Are offered a variety of research questions to pursue and get to choose and pursue the question or direction that is most interesting to them;
  • Have opportunities to develop experimental designs or plans about how to best analyze data. For a computational researcher, this may include opportunities to contribute to the development and design of the software or computational models being used in the research;
  • Engage in troubleshooting when research fails or requires some form of optimization, with more experienced researchers supporting them in the process rather than just telling them what to do; and
  • Get to decide how to communicate their findings to the research group or larger community of researchers, again with guidance and support from a more experienced researcher.

As mentees continue developing epistemic involvement in their projects, they will likely start to form their own research questions. As mentees transform their own research questions into fully-fledged research agendas, for example, as they become PhD candidates or postdocs, they are experiencing another form of independence called strategic autonomy (Bailyn, 1985). We can support our mentees’ development of strategic autonomy in research by:

  • Encouraging mentees to explore their research interests beyond the scope of their current project;
  • Connecting mentees to other mentors with relevant expertise; this is especially important when our mentees’ research interests extend beyond our own expertise;
  • Discussing with mentees how they can access training or collaborations needed to pursue their research agenda; and
  • Supporting mentees in exploring and pursuing funding for their own research agendas.

In our own research, we find that mentees’ experiences of operational autonomy, epistemic involvement, and strategic autonomy are a major part of how mentees recognize themselves as researchers (Pfeifer et al., 2023). By cultivating the independence of mentees in our research groups, we can support the development of their identity as scientists and researchers. Mentees with more robust science identities are more likely to intend and actually pursue science research-related careers (e.g., Chemers et al., 2011; Estrada et al., 2011, 2018; Robnett et al., 2015). Thus, our efforts to support mentee development are investments in the future of our mentees and the future of science itself.

 Do you have other ideas about how to foster independence in research? Email us at– your input may be the focus of a future blog post!

 If you are interested in learning more about evidence-based practices related to undergraduate research and mentorship, please check out our other blog posts in this series (listed below) and stay tuned for future blog posts!

  1. Who gets to do undergraduate research?
  2. New researchers have arrived-now what?
  3. How do you know what your mentee knows?
  4. How do I set my mentee up for success in research?

About the Authors

Dr. Mariel Pfeifer is a postdoctoral associate at the University of Georgia doing education research about how early career researchers develop their science researcher identity. She is involved in C-CoMP’s Collaboration Committee and the CURE working group. She will be an Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of Mississippi starting in January 2024, where she will pursue her own research agenda. There her group will study the experiences of students with disabilities in STEM settings and how early career researchers optimize their own training experiences based on their interests and goals.

Dr. Erin Dolan is a Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and Georgia Athletic Association Professor of Innovative Science Education at the University of Georgia as well as C-CoMP’s Diversity Coordinator.


Bailyn, L. (1985). Autonomy in the industrial R&D lab. Human Resource Management, 24(2), 129–146.

Burgin, S. R., Sadler, T. D., & Koroly, M. J. (2012). High school student participation in scientific research apprenticeships: Variation in and relationships among student experiences and outcomes. Research in Science Education, 42(3), 439–467.

Chemers, M. M., Zurbriggen, E. L., Syed, M., Goza, B. K., & Bearman, S. (2011). The role of efficacy and identity in science career commitment among underrepresented minority students. Journal of Social Issues, 67(3), 469–491.

Estrada, M., Hernandez, P. R., & Schultz, P. W. (2018). A longitudinal study of how quality mentorship and research experience integrate underrepresented minorities into STEM careers. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 17(1), ar9. 

Estrada, M., Woodcock, A., Hernandez, P. R., & Schultz, P. (2011). Toward a model of social influence that explains minority student integration into the scientific community. Journal of Educational Psychology, 206–222.

Pfeifer, M. A., Zajic, C. J., Isaacs, J. M., Erickson, O. A., & Dolan, E. L. (2023). Beyond performance, competence, and recognition: Forging a science researcher identity in the context of research training. BioRxiv, 2023.03.22.533783.

Robnett, R. D., Chemers, M. M., & Zurbriggen, E. L. (2015). Longitudinal associations among undergraduates’ research experience, self‐efficacy, and identity. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 52(6), 847–867.