8 Tips for Creating Successful Mentor-Fellow Collaboration

1. Establish Clear Expectations

Establishing clear expectations with your fellow about work schedules, responsibilities, and communicating is an important first step in making sure that the relationship goes smoothly. Suggested points to discuss:

  • What do you expect of the fellow? What does the fellow expect of you?

  • What is the best way for the fellow to contact you with questions?

  • How often will you meet? Will meetings take place in person or via Zoom? Should the fellow do anything to prepare for these meetings?

  • Should the fellow send you weekly email updates on the progress of their work? If yes, what information should be included in these updates?

  • Confirm the number of hours per week the fellow should expect to work on your project. 

You might want to consider formalizing the outcomes of this initial conversation in a written agreement to ensure you and the fellow are on the same page. 

2. Set SMART Goals

Setting goals with your fellow at the beginning of the program is critical because it provides clarification on what they are expected to accomplish, and helps identify any support you might need to provide in order to set your fellow up for success. Start by defining clear goals for your fellow to work on. Make sure each goal is SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound). This approach will help ensure clarity, that the scope of a goal is aligned with what realistically can be accomplished, that metrics are in place to assess success are and that you both agree on a timeline and milestones. 

3. Assess Fellow Skills and Determine Training Needs

Determine the necessary background knowledge and skills that a fellow would need in order to complete the task at hand. Assess your fellow’s beginning skill level and knowledge when you first start working with them. It's important to have them actually do the task or demonstrate knowledge, as fellows may struggle with assessing what they don't know. Before your fellow starts to work on a task, listen to them narrate how they would go about it and approach potential problems; this might help you identify parts in the research process where the fellow might need instruction. If applicable, ask undergraduates who have already done research with you to write a list of "things they wish they'd known the first day." Sometimes they might be able to articulate steps in the research process that you do automatically.

4. Make the Steps of the Research Process Explicit

Expose the fellow to the full research process, even if they are only working on part of it. Have your fellow read key articles or books that led to the current study, or ask them to brainstorm what the "next steps" in the research process might look like.

5. Incorporate Routine Checks for Understanding

Don't assume that a lack of expressed questions means that the fellow understands. Be proactive about catching areas of misunderstanding early to prevent larger problems later on. Try these strategies:

  • Have your fellow write out a research plan before they get started. Review the plan with them and review any areas that seem less certain.

  • Ask your fellow to send you a weekly email update with 1. a summary of what they learned that week; 2. any obstacles they encountered; 3. what they are planning for next week.

  • Consider setting up a mid-fellowship evaluation meeting with your fellow to discuss what went well and adjustments that need to be made for the second semester

While fellows often need a lot of support initially, the ultimate goal is for them to be able to take ownership of their tasks and think independently.

6. Talk About Professional Development

Fellows often report that some of the most important benefits of the undergraduate fellowship program are related to professional development: networking opportunities, research-relevant skill development, experience working in a professional setting, etc. Consider discussing these questions with your fellow:

  • What career options is the fellow considering? Are there ways that the research experience could help the fellow decide on a career goal or get needed experience?  Note: having the fellow consult with the UC Berkeley Career Center might be helpful.

  • What experience (if any) does the fellow have working in a professional setting? Do they have any questions about how to dress, how to send emails, etc.?

  • Are there any networking opportunities that you as the mentor could help facilitate for the fellow? If you attend an event with a fellow, be sure to help them make new connections.

7. Inclusive Mentoring

If your fellow is from an underrepresented or marginalized group, they might be facing additional challenges or barriers. It also is key to refrain from making assumptions about a fellow or their background. Approaching them with curiosity and asking questions to better understand their circumstances is the way to go. Here are a few general tips on how to create an inclusive environment for everybody: 

  • Foster a sense of belonging by inviting all fellows to share their perspectives and experiences. Let them know that their experiences and perspectives are valued.

  • Believe in your fellow’s ability and then help them develop skills. Encourage them to believe they will be successful.

  • Share your own challenges and how you overcame them.

  • Hold your fellow accountable but also try to be flexible with schedules. Some fellows may have work or family obligations that make scheduling meetings or meeting project deadlines difficult. Open communication is key!

8. Effective Communication and Relationship Building Tips:

  • Get to know your fellow and build trust by living up to your commitments (model the behavior you expect from them!) 

  • Communicate frequently and clearly with your fellow. 

  • Create a culture in which fellows feel respected, valued, and safe to ask questions and learn from mistakes.  

  • Don’t shy away from providing constructive feedback. The latter should be:

    • Specific: Provide specific examples.

    • Timely: As soon as possible following a mistake or an issue that need to be addressed. 

    • Focused on Behavior Instead of Character: Defensiveness occurs when people feel criticized on who they are. They will be more receptive to being called out on a specific behavior or action. 

    • Given in the context of setting them up for success for their assignment and future career path. 

  • Openly communicate your needs to make the collaboration a success.

  • Be receptive to your fellow’s circumstances and needs.

  • Make sure that you listen deeply with the goal to understand. 

  • Give praise and celebrate successes as applicable. 

  • Be tough on the problem and soft on the person!