What is a Mentor?

Our study found faculty are the most important mentors for college undergraduates.


  • Provide advice to someone who is establishing or progressing through his/her career.
  • Cares enough to be honest about situations and helps the mentee arrive at plans of action.
  • Can be a sounding board for ideas, but should not dictate a mentee's actions.
  • Should diplomatically let the student know if he/she is unable to write a strong letter of recommendation.

People can survive without them, but a good mentor can help a mentee understand the system and facilitate career advancements. Here are a few additional reasons why mentors matter, and what being a mentor means.

  • A mentor can contribute to, but is not responsible for, the success of the mentee.
  • Your mentee is not you. Every person is unique and can be helped to develop individual talents, sometimes exceeding everyone's expectations.
  • Mentors can relate to mentees from completely different backgrounds.
  • A mentor can encourage someone to make appropriate choices and develop plans for succeeding. Building self-confidence is important to career development.
  • A mentor can help a mentee gain opportunities for development.
  • A mentor should not try to dictate a mentee's life or career.
  • Being a mentor is a commitment, not a full-time job. Your mentee needs to recognize the limit of your involvement.
  • You can't help someone if he/she doesn't feel comfortable talking to you. Listen to the mentee.
  • Use personal experiences effectively. Relating your experiences or those of other people will help your mentee understand that people encounter problems, survive, and often succeed.
  • Relating to your mentee personally can be very rewarding for both of you. Taking a mentee on a family or lab outing can bring a new dimension to mentoring.

Recommended Reading

NAS report Advisor, Teacher, Role Model, Friend on Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering.

How to Get Involved

Interested in being a mentor? Complete a research mentor commitment form. Be sure to indicate whether you can fund a student or need the program to fund a student. Then, the SMART Program will match you with a participant.

Before the Program Begins

Once matched, review the participant's application to become familiar with the student's background, experience, abilities and interests. Before the program begins:

  • Communicate with the student to recommend reading.
  • Plan a project that is suitable for the participant and of benefit to your lab's goals. Provide the participant with a written outline of the project.
  • Plan a project that is suitable for the participant and of benefit to your lab's goals. Provide the participant with a written outline of the project.
  • Make sure members of your lab understand the participant is to be treated as a colleague, as a part of the scientific community.

During the SMART Program

Once the SMART program session begins: 

  • Meet with the student early in the summer to discuss the project and your lab environment. Make your requirements known to the student.
  • Discuss the student's goals and how his/her efforts this summer can move him/her closer toward those goals.
  • Maintain a sufficient level of contact with the student and supervisor to monitor the student's progress. Let the student know how he/she is progressing.
  • Provide advice for further career development. Share your personal experiences with the student.
  • Provide the program director with feedback regarding the student's performance. Advise the program director of any significant problems that arise in time to take action to solve the problem.