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New researchers have arrived – now what?

Imagine you are early on in your career as a faculty member and your lab is up and running. You have recruited a postdoc and a couple of graduate students, and you feel like you are in a good position to start bringing undergraduate researchers into your group. You are keen to offer spots to undergraduate researchers because your own experience doing research as an undergrad sparked your interest in pursuing research as a career. You have a couple of ideas for projects that involve techniques and protocols that seem feasible for undergrads to learn.

You accept two undergraduate researchers into your lab through a summer research program. You give them a couple of papers to read in advance of their program start date so that they will be able to hit the ground running when they arrive on campus. When the first day of the program arrives, you make a point of meeting the students at orientation yourself and walking with them to lab. You introduce the undergrads to the grad students and postdoc, and show them where they would be working. Then you ask what questions the undergrads had about the papers you sent. One student takes out her laptop and pulls up a list of questions. She notes that she had read two other papers that cited the papers you shared. The other student is quiet and seems a bit lost – they hadn’t brought a laptop or anything to write with. You are perplexed that the student would be so unprepared, but relieved to have at least one motivated student…

Take a minute to reflect on this scenario. Is the first student really more motivated than the second? What if the first student has had time to read the papers because their classes ended a few weeks ago, while the second student just finished finals last week? What if the first student happened to take a course where they learned to read journal articles and the second student has not had that opportunity yet? What if the first student has parents who are academics, and the second student is first in their family to go to college?

Sometimes we don’t realize the assumptions we are making because we forget about the fact that we have expertise and a lot of experience. We are so used to reading papers that we forget how difficult this was the first time we did it. We assume students will read papers when we offer them. We are comfortable asking questions and assume that others are too – after all, asking questions is foundational to doing science. Yet, undergraduates are in the early stages of learning all of these things. They are likely to have different educational experiences that affect how much they understand about what science is and how science is done. For instance, some students may have attended specialized STEM high schools and others may have graduated from schools that offered no advanced placement or laboratory instruction in science. Some undergraduates may come from families that encourage questioning, while others may come from families in which asking questions – especially of authorities – is discouraged.

Our job as mentors of new researchers (i.e., mentees), whether they are new to research or just new to a research group, is to recognize our expectations and make them transparent so that all of our mentees have an opportunity to succeed. As you welcome new researchers into your group, consider making expectations transparent by:

  • Asking about and sharing expectations. Asking new researchers about themselves and their interests and aspirations, including what they want to gain from their research training, will help you design their training accordingly (Pfund et al., 2015). This makes training more equitable because it doesn’t assume one starting or ending point for all mentees. Sharing your expectations with each mentee and discussing your mutual expectations will help the two of you get on the same page about your work together. One way to start the discussion about expectations is for you and your mentee to independently fill out these expectations scales (opens in new window) (Golde, 2010). This can help you appreciate areas of agreement and discuss places of disagreement to figure out how to proceed.

The principle of equity: Constantly and consistently recognizing and redistributing power. Equity is about who has power in a group and how that power can be redistributed to be fairer.

  • Developing a research group compact. Compacts are statements or agreements that explain how a research group operates. Here are examples from chemistry, neuroscience, and conservation ecology, as well as a checklist for what to include in a compact. Compacts serve as “user manuals” that new researchers can use to learn how to work successfully within the group. The best compacts are generated with input and feedback not just from principal investigators but also from research group members. This helps ensure the compact is inclusive of a diversity of perspectives on how the lab operates.

The principle of inclusion: Behaving in ways that explicitly and implicitly indicate that the thoughts, ideas, and perspectives of all individuals matter.

  • Revisit expectations over time. It is easy to see the benefits of discussing expectations with new researchers. It is also important to revisit expectations over time, once researchers have been in the lab a while. Expectations change for a lot reasons – scientific, personal, and professional – so mentors should make a point of checking in with mentees about expectations, including whether expectations of both mentors and mentees are being met and whether expectations should or could evolve in response to changing situations and priorities. Waiting too long to revisit expectations can be inequitable because it limits the power individuals have to make changes. In other words, a mentee has the power to change what they are doing to better meet expectations only if they know there is a problem.

Inequity refers to the state of being unfair or unjust. Inequity is different from inequality, which is when situations or circumstances are imbalanced. For instance, social inequities can lead to gender or racial inequalities.

Do you have other ideas of how to establish and revisit expectations in equitable and inclusive ways? Are you wondering how to make other research activities more equitable and inclusive? Email us at– your input may be the focus of a future blog post!

About the Author

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.


Golde, CM. (2010). Student-Advisor Expectations Scales.

Pfund, C., Branchaw, J. L., & Handelsman, J. (2015). Entering Mentoring (2nd ed.). Macmillan.