I am a postdoc and I am mentoring a research exchange undergraduate (REU) student from another university virtually and I will say it's a bit strange. The student is not responding well to my emails or being very proactive in the research. I also have not received any paperwork about the program although I did see briefly a screen share of the expectations, and was told that they would work 40 hours per week on the project.

My mentorship philosophy is that the student should be self motivated to do their research because that is 99% of research and if they don't have that motivation to do the research it is their own fault. Also, I have never been micromanaged as a researcher so I feel I should also give that freedom to any student that I mentor.

How should I address the student? What recommendations do you have for mentoring REU students?

4 Answers 4


I would recommend an online meeting or phone call to have a dialog about expectations. If you want weekly progress reports, you can ask for that. If you have expectations on how quickly email is to be answered, you can bring that up. By doing this in a dialog you give the student a chance to asks for modifications. Perhaps they want a shared folder, or a discord channel. Email alone is going to be a hard way to establish a working relationship.


I'm on the other side of the spectrum (a student who is remotely working on research with a professor for the summer). Perhaps my perspective can help.

Working from home without ever having met the people one is working with on something that they are probably new to, can honestly be quite demotivating and I sympathize with the student. This was something I was pretty worried about as well. Academia SE gave some really nice advice in this regard (see near the end).

Some initiative that my professor took that really helps me:

Expectations and Direction

As stated in the other answers as well, have a meet (preferably on Zoom or Skype) to discuss your expectations of what the student needs to work on over the Summer.

Don't just describe the broad area of the research and a general direction (this is also necessary). Discuss the particular direction of the project and the work that it involves. This gives the student some clarity and not make them feel like they are wandering around aimlessly. The more specific, the better (although I understand it's often difficult to give specifics while doing research, as things can go in unexpected directions. Just try your best).

Just as important is for you to ask the student about their expectations with this project. What skills are they looking to learn? What is their end goal for the project? This will ensure that you are both on the same page and can work together proactively towards that goal (provided it's feasible).

Regular meets

This is really important. Have regular meets on Skype or Zoom, preferably with the camera on, to discuss their progress. This adds to the accountability for the student and it is much easier to ask questions on a (virtual) face-to-face meeting rather than email or Slack.

Socializing with the group

This may not be possible under all circumstances, but if it is possible, it can be so helpful! You might be part of a research group under a Professor, right? Having a weekly group meeting to give updates or a journal club to discuss papers with the entire group can be really beneficial, not just from a research perspective (if two people are working on similar projects, it helps to let ideas flow through a discussion) but also allows the student to socialize with the rest of the group and ask questions more freely. If there are other REU students, it will be nice to meet them. This really helps with morale.

I live on another continent to the rest of them, so for us, there is a nice inter-cultural aspect to it too.

Talk about the big picture

Don't just go about it mechanically, where you give the student a task, they complete it, you review it and so on and so forth. Let the student know where their work stands in the grand scheme of things. Tell them about recent developments in the domain. Encourage them to read papers and think about their relevance to their own work. Again, this helps with the motivation for the student and helps make their work more meaningful.

Seminars and Colloquia

I am not entirely sure, but I assume if the student had been on campus, they would have been allowed to attend seminars that your department may hold? It is probably happening virtually now, so encourage your student to partake in it, even if it is not directly related to their research. All this is again part of making the REU experience more valuable and 'real'.

Things the Student Can (Should?) Do

I was really dreading the possibility that the virtual nature of the REU and a few difficult months prior (mental health wise) may completely demotivate me. I asked this question on Academia SE and they really came through (as usual). I am following the advice, and it's enhancing my research experience in many ways. I encourage you to share their advice with your own student. It essentially boils down to:

  • Keep a log of your work.
  • Type up notes of everything you learn and do.
  • Have regular meets.

40 hours per week means the student gets payed. You should set up a weekly meeting via zoom or Skype. During the meeting the student should tell you about any progress and ask questions. If the student does not show up report him/her to the REU supervisor (the one who pays money).

  • 4
    This is not always true. Sometimes, if the project is part of a module, then the number of credits for the module maps to an expected number of hours of work (either contact time or self-motivated). But you might say that the student is effectively paid in university module credits (exchangeable for a qualification) rather than actual money. It's just slightly trickier to quantify.
    – Pam
    Commented Jun 26, 2021 at 10:08

"What recommendations do you have for mentoring REU students?"

Put more care into the selection of your students. There's a common saying "a bad student is worse than no student at all". The skill of selecting students that will be the best fit for you, is something that you acquire over time, and through experience. It's not unusual to make a few mistakes early in your career as a mentor/supervisor. For example, simply selecting someone because they have excellent grades, GitHub projects, or even publications and letters of references, can sometimes be a mistake: a 30-minute interview can be well worth the time and save you dozens of hours of time down the road. During that interview, make sure the student is on the same page with you (for example about what you said about your philosophy that the student is self-motivated). For example, you said:

"My mentorship philosophy is that the student should be self motivated to do their research because that is 99% of research and if they don't have that motivation to do the research it is their own fault."

But you're talking about an undergrad student, and expecting them to be self-motivated: I agree that you and me probably were, but most are not (in fact since starting my own research institute, I've found postdocs who I thought would be absolutely delighted that I offered them a faculty position where they'd be able to run their own lab independently, and believe it or not, many of them say they prefer to have a project given to them! -- By the way, I learned this by interviewing them, not by reading their resume and making assumptions).

For you, I would recommend asking them questions during the interview that will probe their likelihood to be the type of student that you seem to be expecting. You may find it surprising, but a lot of students who "on paper" have the highest grades or seem like they'd be the most cut out for research, tend actually not to be.


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