Working With Undergrads as a Grad Student

May 11, 2014

In grad school, I’ve had the privilege to do research with UW’s extraordinarily talented undergrads. Some of these relationships have been successful and a few have ended in utter disappointment. Here are a few obvious-in-retrospect lessons I learned along the way.

Why Undergraduate Research?

There are two obvious (and great!) reasons for working with undergrads:

It’s important to keep both purposes in perspective: if one takes too much precedence and comes at the expense of the other, one or both of you will be unhappy and nothing will get done.

One implication is that you need to be careful about how to organize mundane logistics. Meeting too often—every day, for example—will make you feel like you’re putting more energy in than you’re getting out. But if you never see each other, the student can easily start feeling like they’re not making any progress.

Level of Autonomy

Choosing an appropriate project is the most difficult and most important decision in making undergrad mentorship work. I’ve found it useful to differentiate between two kinds of undergrad projects:

Another way of putting this is that you need to decide who will be in charge: either you’re in charge and getting an undergrad to write code or run tests, or they’re in charge and your job is to guide them through the process.

Clearly, the former is easier to get going and manage. But the latter can be potentially more rewarding and it’s not as far-fetched as it may sound: with enough guidance and choice of project, sufficiently ambitious senior undergrads are certainly capable of “running the show.”

The student’s background should of course influence the level of ambition for the project. But also be sure to ask how much time they will have to devote and how much time you will have for advising.

Project Scope

Before meeting with an undergrad to start a collaboration, write down a few concrete ideas that you can “pitch” as possibilities. (I’ve had predictably little success with asking students to just work on “whatever they’re interested in.”) Here are three guidelines for deciding the scope of these ideas:


Provide frequent and transparent feedback. The student has probably never done this before, so having as much metadata as possible about how the project is going can help them get their bearings.

There are two kinds of feedback I’ve found to be helpful: