MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXI No. 3
January / February 2009
An Integrated Approach to
MIT's Financial Future
MIT Needs a Principled Response to the Current Economic Crisis
Can You Hear Me Now . . . ?
Improving Cell Phone Coverage at MIT
The Role of Faculty Officers During MIT's Financial Restructuring
A Call for Nominations to
Faculty Newsletter Editorial Board
The Facilitating Effective Research Program
When a Whistle in the Wind is the Sound of Steam: Lessons Learned from a Building Emergency
Faculty Can Help Prevent
Sensitive Data Loss
Online Textbook Information Project
Needs Faculty Help
Teaching this spring? You should know . . .
Number of Foreign Students at MIT
Printable Version

The Facilitating Effective Research Program

Janet Rankin

In most science and engineering fields, success in research (in both academe and industry) requires not only advanced domain-specific knowledge and sophisticated experimental and analytical skills, but mentoring and managerial skills as well. Graduate students here at MIT (and throughout the country) usually have their first professional mentoring experiences when they are given responsibility for the day-to-day supervision of undergraduates in laboratories and/or other research environments. These close working-relationships between graduate students/post-docs and undergraduates can be very rewarding for all parties, but often graduate students and post-docs are given little explicit guidance or advice about planning research tasks, or how best to guide and manage undergraduate students.

In order to support graduate students and post-docs from across the Institute in their roles as undergraduate mentors, the Teaching and Learning Lab (TLL) and the Office of Undergraduate Advising and Academic Programming (UAAP) offer the Facilitating Effective Research (FER) Program.

The FER Program strives to make the undergraduate research experience more meaningful for the undergraduate researchers, more rewarding for their graduate student and post-doctoral mentors, and more productive for everyone involved. FER provides a forum for grad students and post-docs to consider and discuss the issues and factors inherent in the effective mentoring of students and management of research activities.

The program has been offered five times over the past two years, and has assumed a variety of formats – from four individual one-hour sessions; to two two-hour sessions. Each session is offered over the noon-hour, with lunch provided to all participants. In total, over 80 graduate students and post-docs have attended the program. FER addresses a variety of topics, including: Mentoring and Advising Styles; Perspectives of Experienced Faculty Mentors; Perspectives of UROP Veterans and Experienced Graduate Student Advisors; and Case Studies (that address complex and/or difficult graduate student/undergraduate interactions).

In the Mentoring and Advising Styles session, participants discuss their own management/mentoring styles and preferences, along with the strengths, weaknesses, and biases of those styles. Participants are encouraged to consider the ways in which their management styles might lead to either synergistic or problematic interactions with others (specifically those that they were supervising). In addition, participants discuss the establishment of realistic and developmentally appropriate project goals [An undergraduate who is participating in her/his first research experience is likely to require (and appreciate) more explicit and detailed guidance than a student with more research experience.]; the importance of setting clear and realistic expectations at the onset; and the need for open lines of communication among all parties involved. 

During the Perspectives of Experienced Faculty Mentors and the Perspectives of UROP Veterans and Experienced Graduate Student Advisors sessions, veteran advisors describe how their approaches to mentoring and project supervision have changed over time. They also offer their strategies for supporting student researchers with a range of experiences. Veteran UROPs provide valuable insights for participating graduate students. Most times, these seasoned UROPs have worked in multiple labs and on multiple projects, and are able to reflect on what has worked for them and why. Program participants value the inclusion of “real” undergraduates who can answer direct and specific questions from the UROP student perspective.

The Case Studies session provides participants with the opportunity to discuss difficult graduate student/undergraduate interactions and reactions to a variety of problems and issues that can arise in a research setting. The cases presented underscore the importance of clear and open lines of communication (between undergrad and grad students, and between faculty advisors and grad students), the value of setting realistic goals, and the existence of external sources of advice and support (for situations that cannot or should not be addressed by the graduate student alone).

The FER Program can be adapted and modified for use in individual departments.

It can be tailored to meet the needs of a particular group (post-docs, graduate students, or junior faculty) from a given department, or to support individuals in specific programs, groups, or initiatives at MIT.

The next FER sessions will be offered on Tuesday March 10, 2009 and Thursday March 12, 2009, from noon -1:30, location TBD. Pre-registration is required. For more information contact Janet Rankin (TLL): ( or Melissa Martin-Greene (UAAP-UROP):

Please contact the Teaching and Learning Laboratory ( or the UROP Office ( if you have any questions about the FER Program or if you would like to discuss modification/implementation of the Program to fit your departmental needs.

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