10 Tips for Supervising Research Interns
I recently came across this post on Twitter that said, “I’m mentoring an undergrad researcher for the first time! What advice would you give for how to be a good mentor?”
Supervising students is one of my favourite parts of academic life. The post made me think about how I supervise my interns and what tips I would give people that are new to it.
The first thing that came to mind was what I call the “3 rules of my lab.” I always tell these to students when they start in my lab. They reflect my approach to research, supervision and, I suppose, also reflect my personality.
The three rules in my lab:
- There are no stupid questions
- If you stuff up (break something, etc.), tell me. It’s okay, we all make mistakes; it’s part of learning.
- Don’t ever assume I know what I am doing. I could be wrong, so if you think so, say something
On a more serious note, these are the ten tips that I would give to people new to supervising undergraduate interns. Besides number 1, these are in no particular order.
- Be KIND. Be patient. Doing an internship is a great experience, but it can be overwhelming and scary.
- Ask the intern what they want out of the experience. Why are they doing the internship?
- Communicate expectations. I usually emphasize that I am always happy to help, but they are in charge of their own learning. The more you invest, the more you get out. Let the intern take ownership!
- Be honest about what you can and can’t provide and what is achievable within the time-frame they have.
- Encourage the intern to ask questions, lots of them.
- Encourage them to share their ideas and thoughts. To me, great research happens when people just think out aloud and bounce ideas off each other. For every 10 crazy and unfeasible ideas, there is a great one.
- Include the intern in the group. Have the intern attend group meetings, seminars etc. A large part of an internship is being part of a research team (if that is possible).
- Train the intern properly, then supervise but let the intern explore things themselves. They might break something, but that’s (mostly) ok. (AKA don’t give the intern that previous sample.)
- There is no such thing as a failed experiment. It might not be the data they wanted or expected, but they likely learnt something about their system. Welcome to research! Remind the intern that the main point of research is to ask questions, to experiment (in the literal sense of the word).
- Tell the intern that a large part of science is living with uncertainty. Many times, if they ask a question, you might not know the answer. Again, welcome to research. Let’s find out together, then guide the intern to the next experiment.
Finally, also be kind to yourself! Remember supervising is not something that we are explicitly taught as academics. You are learning as well. Don’t be shy about asking more senior mentors for advice.