Remote Undergraduate Research Mentoring

Updated 8/20/20 by Megan Shannahan

Suggestions for Remote Research Mentoring

The transition to remote research has presented many challenges to both researchers and their mentees. Beyond transitioning the research itself to a new format, mentors and mentees have had to consider how to modify the mentoring aspect as well. Colleagues from around the country have pulled together lists of suggestions from their faculty about how to adapt in-person mentoring practices to a virtual format. We’ve summarized the most common suggestions into the list below. No matter what stage of the mentoring process you are in, we hope this list will be helpful to you as you hone your own remote mentoring practice.

We recognize that traditions of research and mentoring vary widely across disciplines. In order to provide a more inclusive list of suggestions, we want to hear from you! How have you adapted your mentoring practice and/or research for remote undergraduates? Do you have any suggestions we can share? Let us know here. We’ll update this page with your input.

Helpful suggestions for transitioning to remote research mentoring:

  1. Communicate with your mentees regularly and as clearly as possible in rapidly changing circumstances. This is more important than ever!
    1. What are your communication boundaries? How do you plan to communicate with your mentees, how often, individually or in groups? During which hours will you be available?
    2. How often do you hope to hear from your mentees?
    3. Consider scheduling regular check-in meetings at least once per week. Depending on your relationship with your mentees, they might be intimidated or overwhelmed with asking anything of you. It is important for you to reach out and discuss their concerns.
    4. Consider asking for written updates due before check-ins (progress reports, summary of key tasks, report on accomplishments, obstacles, questions for discussion). Remind mentees to keep up with lab/research notebooks
    5. Set up a shared virtual workspace, like Microsoft Teams or Slack or upload to Google Drive electronic data sets, video, and/or take pictures of research tasks
  2. If you haven’t already, review (or create!) the set of expectations you set at the beginning of the research experience.
    1. The OUR has developed a mentor-mentee agreement that you might find helpful for this purpose.
    2. Explicitly discuss and consider the challenges both you and your mentees are experiencing and how they affect expectations.
    3. Which expectations and/or goals are important to maintain? Which need to be modified? How is your schedule of progress affected?
    4. What skills will your mentees need to develop and how will research happen when campus is closed to them?
    5. If you are unable to fully meet the needs of your mentees, who should they check-in with? Reach out to colleagues for help.
  3. Don’t forget to consider your mentee’s mental health.
    1. Acknowledge that these are uncertain times and that it’s normal to feel to feel distress. Provide reassurance at check-ins.
    2. Remember that everyone’s home environments look different. Your mentees may have different levels of access to technology and may have differing levels of caregiving obligations.
    3. Remind your mentees (and yourself) to step away from the computer and the news and include exercise or other self-care activities into their schedules.
    4. If your mentees express concerns about health, housing, family, food, technology, etc., be responsive. Think about offices across campus who are working with students to address concerns, like the Counseling Center, the Feed U Pantry, the Marriott Library (to checkout laptops and hotspots), and the Office of Financial Aid for emergency funding.
  4. Be flexible and creative.
    1. Be an example for how to deal with upsets, changes, and challenges. Show your mentees how to adapt.
    2. Be flexible with deadlines and changing schedules.
    3. For mentees who are nearing graduation, consider helping them develop a realistic action plan to meet a rapidly changing job market.
    4. Find creative ways for mentees to get to know you and other research colleagues and for informal conversations to happen. Set up events that mimic social interaction normally found in a lab or research space (a senior undergraduate or graduate student could be in charge of planning these events):
      1. Virtual coffee hours or lunches to encourage people to get to know each other.
      2. Frequent virtual lab hours for lab members to have a space to check in with and get to know each other.
      3. Virtual journal clubs
      4. Virtual writing groups

Ideas for Engaging Undergraduates in Remote Research

Looking for ways to involve undergraduates in remote research? Here are some ideas:

  • Conduct literature searches and reviews (create/update database, work on citation management skills)
  • Remote data gathering/analysis
  • Transcribe films, interviews, other materials
  • Meta-analysis of existing literature
  • Archival research
  • Conduct virtual interviews
  • Manuscript writing project (collaborate on writing up results of previous experiments)
  • Write methodology and/or introduction sections for papers, posters, etc.
  • Grant writing project
  • Create figures, tables, and/or charts
  • Research future trends and/or new product ideas
  • Learn new skills like modeling software, drawing software, plotting software, etc.
  • Modeling/computational work
  • GIS-based project
  • Coding projects
  • Professional development (CV preparation, grad school prep)
  • Identify experimental data that can be modeled using fundamental principles
  • Experimental design
  • Develop web-based surveys/questionnaires
  • Develop videos used for communicating science to a general audience
  • Website building
  • Podcast development
  • Write ‘lab manual’ of standard operating procedures for new students
  • IACUC/IRB protocols
  • Create databases

The above information was summarized from the following resources:

Austin College Johnson Center

Cornell University Graduate School

NC State University Office of Undergraduate Research

Northwestern University Searle Center

Some Advice for PhD Students and Their Mentors in the Time of Coronavirus

The University of Tennessee Knoxville Office of Undergraduate Research

University of Colorado Colorado Springs Center for Student Research

Posted 4/14/20 by Rachel Hayes-Harb

Dear Colleagues,

The limitations placed on research work by COVID-19 pose particular challenges for undergraduate researchers and their mentors. Many mentors are afraid that they will not be able to continue to support undergraduate researchers because they are accustomed to mentoring in-person research work. The current situation requires us to find new and creative ways to involve undergraduate students in meaningful research work.

Please note: Traditions of research and mentoring vary widely across disciplines, and the suggestions below will not suit every situation. Your suggestions for a more inclusive list of mentoring strategies will be very welcomed at

One of the exciting possibilities offered by undergraduate research is the opportunity to dive right into data collection and analysis. However, research questions and resultant data collection emerge from a profound understanding of the relevant context. Often–though not always–undergraduate students begin to engage with the literature after they have begun hands-on research work. The current environment presents an opportunity for students to begin by reading, reading, and reading some more so that they are ready to hit the ground running when in-person research work is again possible. Mentor strategies:

  • Talk with students about your experience with the “literature rabbit hole” and encourage them to pursue their own rabbit holes
  • Encourage the development of reading groups among the research team
  • Provide students with reading lists and ask them to develop annotated bibliographies
  • Encourage students to engage the help of librarians and other experts in evaluating and using citation management software

Another opportunity afforded by the current situation is the time and space to develop or expand expertise with technologies that support data collection and analysis. Mentor strategies:

  • Have students learn a relevant programming language or software
  • Give students old raw data and the publications reporting the analyses of that data, and have them recreate the original analyses using analysis software
  • Review your research team’s various procedures and invite students to revise/update research manuals and other materials

Finally, this is a great time for students to explore the Responsible Conduct of Research. Mentor strategies:

  • Present students with brief narratives describing difficult situations faced by researchers in your field. Point them in the direction of your field’s ethics statements and have them respond to the following questions: (1) What went wrong? (2) How should the situation be handled?, and (3) How can the situation be avoided in the future?
  • Have students create accounts at the Center for Open Science and explore their tools and guidance for research transparency, openness, and reproducibility.

I will add to this list as I learn from my colleagues how they are creatively navigating the situation around COVID-19. Many thanks in advance for your input!

With gratitude and my best wishes for your well-being,

Rachel Hayes-Harb


Additional Resources:

NORDP’s Mentoring in a Time of Crisis and Uncertainty

The Research Skill Development Framework