Paying it forward: how we can do better for our undergrads

The vast majority of us discovered our love of research in our undergraduate career and some of us even earlier than that. Thinking back to your experience, there was likely an individual who inspired you in your research. That person mentored you and taught you to the best of their ability. You probably have an anecdotal story about how they taught you to run your first gel or your first experience in the field.

Now, if you think about a professor or teaching assistant (TA) who didn’t invest enough time to educate you, you probably feel like there is a gap in your knowledge or some resentment towards that person. It is important that we take the time to teach and mentor our undergraduate students as they are the future scientists, doctors, pharmacists, chemists, etc.

It is likely that at some point in your graduate career, you will be responsible for teaching undergraduate students in some capacity. For several reasons, many programs require teaching undergraduate courses as a requirement for graduation. First, it offers their students valuable teaching experience that can translate to a multitude of workforce skills. Second, it is financially beneficial for the institution. Paying a graduate student to teach is simply cheaper than overburdening faculty or hiring more faculty. Even if your program doesn’t include a teaching requirement, you will still likely encounter undergraduate students as transient members of your lab. There is one problem with this–no one has trained us to teach. Time and time again I see that undergraduate students are being let down by their TAs or senior lab members because, even with good intentions, they don’t know how to teach.

During your PhD career, you will delve into the deepest depths of scientific knowledge. Unfortunately, because of this, you will lose touch with what your undergrads know and understand. Additionally, there is a massive body of research that addresses teaching methods we are ignorant of. Drexel University and Carnegie Mellon University have put together nice, comprehensive guides of methods for their TAs. Most universities offer short one-day introductory sessions for their new TAs that focus more on the legality of teaching rather than techniques. Maybe there is a weekly TA meeting, but these are generally more focused on the mechanics of the lecture or lab due to time constraints. There is very little to no instruction in mentoring junior lab members. We need to ask ourselves, “Is this enough?” It seems that in order to serve our undergraduate students, leading them to be more successful both in later courses and in their careers, we should be striving to provide them with well prepared TAs and graduate mentors in the lab.

To add to this problem, many of us prioritize research over everything else in life, and we don’t take the time to ensure our students truly understand and engage with the material. We’re more concerned with our microscope times than grading lab reports, and rightfully so since our publications result in a degree, but our evaluations do not. When mentoring undergraduates in the lab, some of us grow impatient because of our own schedules. We expect they perfect a new technique on their first attempt. This is unrealistic. If we are going to utilize TAs and allow undergraduates to conduct research in our labs, we need to better manage our time so that we can provide them with the instruction they deserve.

To address these issues, graduate students need to be provided with more instruction on how to be better TAs and mentors. Many universities have a career services division that is overlooked and underused by graduate students. These departments offer short courses to help your teaching and mentoring methods evolve. Additionally, they offer transferable skills workshops, like time management and leadership. If we are better able to manage our lives and our students, we can better train the next generation of professionals. Don’t be afraid to attend seminars outside your field either. Most departments within a university offer seminars to their students, including the education and administration divisions. These seminars could offer new ideas or methods to add to your teaching and mentoring repertoire.

ASCB members have access to some wonderful opportunities to improve teaching and mentoring skills. For example, many sessions, workshops, and roundtables at the annual ASCB meeting are geared towards teaching and mentoring methods.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

About the Author:

Ashtyn Zinn is a Ph.D student at the University of Toledo in Biological Sciences. Her research focuses on the dynamics of cell migration. Ashtyn is also completing a Master’s of Public Health Administration