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Simple and short question: as a postdoc (or a senior grad student), is it a good idea to mentor an undergrad? How much edge will it provide perhaps for a future (NSF) grant, or a job application?

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Assuming the mentoring has a measurable successful outcome (student goes to grad school, student writes paper), the NSF would definitely look kindly on such mentoring. Whether the time spent doing this will (minute for minute) be a better value than writing an impactful paper - probably not. But that reasoning is of course flawed - you don't know ahead of time whether the time you spend writing that paper will pay off :).

As with most other things, do it if you care about the mentoring process and enjoy working with undergraduates. Don't do it if the primary goal is to get the bullet on your CV.

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I don't know whether your grant or job applications will benefit from the experience. However, it will provide you with some immeasurably useful management experience, which you may not be able to gain otherwise. I know that my experience managing undergraduates during my graduate career - directing their research project with them, helping them design and put together experiments, and helping them write papers (or, more likely, having them help you write papers) - was an excellent first experience for me in dealing with issues that professors managing a lab have to deal with on a regular basis. For that alone I would strongly recommend mentoring.

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    As an addendum, if you are already managing other members of the lab, or if you're lucky enough to have technicians whom you help manage working on aspects of your research, this may not be as relevant.
    – eykanal
    Mar 26, 2012 at 2:10
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I have to take a middle road between Suresh and eykanal's answers: mentoring of undergraduates will most likely help you in job applications; I'd believe this to be true whether you're applying to academia or industry or to non-traditional jobs. The reason is that supervising students provides you with direct management experience, which is almost always beneficial when being considered for employment.

However, it is less clear that mentoring an undergraduate would help you in a meaningful way on a grant application. The reason for this is that, in general, there's no logical place to bring such information up in the grant application! In a standard CV, you could list "students supervised" as a normal part of the document; however, according to the current guidelines for the NSF reduced CV format, the only real way that they can be counted is if they wrote a thesis under you, and perhaps as an aggregate count. In the long run, though, the NSF is really interested in graduate students and postdocs supervised.

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    My experience on NSF panels corroborates Suresh's answer. All else being equal, NSF prefers to give money to PIs who mentor undergraduates. (Of course, ceteris is never paribus.) The information fits perfectly under "synergistic activities" in the CV, and under "broader impact" in the proposal itself.
    – JeffE
    Mar 26, 2012 at 13:08
  • @JeffE: When you only have a limited number of synergistic activities, is the expectation that you'd use one of them to list undergraduates mentored? And "broader impact" wouldn't run to any more than "Professor X has mentored Y undergraduates" or something similarly cursory. But I do agree that it's better to have the experience than not to, and that it can give an edge if there's no other factor to distinguish. (How common that is, however, is unclear to me.)
    – aeismail
    Mar 26, 2012 at 14:27
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    Cursory is old and tired; credible details are the new hotness. The right way to phrase it in the proposal is "The PI will continue his years-long habit of mentoring undergraduates.", followed by a few sentences of actual details of past mentoring, followed by a few sentences of actual details of future mentoring plans. What makes it credible is the actual past experience.
    – JeffE
    Mar 26, 2012 at 18:08
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I've sat on graduate student committees that have met with faculty candidates for our department in a research university with a sizeable undergraduate population. The mentorship track record and the result of that mentorship are probably the most important factors that we considered after the intellectual capacity of the candidate.

In our case, dealing with whiny grade-obsessed premeds who don't understand basic concepts is part of the job description. There is also a noticeable volume of undergrads who do research. A future PI who doesn't want to be in a teaching environment is already in the wrong place. A future PI who hasn't considered the fact that they would be in a teaching environment doesn't have a clear vision of where they want to be.

As a potential faculty mentor, they are a potential mentor to a graduate student like yourself. An ability to mentor undergrads without a high attrition rate tells you that they are able to create an environment that doesn't scare the student away as well as an environment that keeps the student to come back. Sounds like a faculty advisor that I would want to have available for future students like me. Conversely, an inability to mentor suggests that they mentor either drove their student into pieces or wasn't able to or weren't patient enough to design suitable experiments to teach difficult concepts to a young mind. If one wasn't able to do this with an undergrad, what would happen with a 1st year PhD student who may be stuck with them for the next 6 years?

Mentoring undergrads provides a solid and universal metric of a candidate's ability to mentor. They are probably the most difficult type of advisee to mentor and the past history of mentorship does provide a nice projection to one's path as an academic.

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