In a recent article published online at The Chronicle of Higher Education James M. Lang, associate professor of English at Assumption College, recalls his difficulty finding a research mentor as an undergraduate. Lang notes that he was turned down for an independent study by three faculty members in his major with the excuse that they were “too busy” to serve as his mentor.
While much of the article is devoted to an explanation of the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, which he views as a suggestion that improves on a flat “I’m too busy,” Lang’s analysis of why he was turned down as an undergraduate highlights some important aspects of the dynamic between faculty researcher and student mentee.
“In defense of all three faculty members,” Lang notes, “I did not know any of them as well as I should have—I was a relatively quiet student in class, and never visited faculty members in their office hours.” And Lang admits that “I did not have a fully worked-out proposal for what I hoped to study.” Now as a faculty member, Lang “can understand perfectly well why they expressed little interest in supervising an ill-conceived project with an undergraduate they barely knew.”
As an incoming student in the FRS program, you may see Lang’s article as confirmation of the anxiety you have about approaching faculty this year. But I want to assure you that at OSU our faculty, like the more experienced Lang, fully understand that undergraduate research can be “the most substantive learning experience of [a student’s] education.” Accordingly our faculty evince a remarkable willingness to accept young students as mentees.
Even though the OSU faculty are extremely receptive to inexperienced students, you do have the responsibility as an aspiring researcher to address the two problems Lang notes as obstacles to a truly inspiring collaboration—namely, regular communication and careful attention to the research plan. In FRS you will have the opportunity to address both issues in the fall by working with your college coordinators to make quality connections with faculty and develop a workable proposal for implementation in the spring.
Your FRS Handbook has several suggestions for “Finding a Faculty Mentor” and offers tips on protocol when first making contact with them about mentoring. You will also find a “Message for Faculty Mentors,” which can serve as your formal introduction. In addition to the introductory message, you will want to provide your prospective mentors with a copy of the “Faculty Mentor Guidebook,” which outlines all of the program’s major requirements. These tools are designed to help you avoid Lang’s regret that he “missed out on a terrific opportunity as a student.”
At this point in FRS, you do not need to have a fully articulated research plan or even know what topic you want to explore. You should, however, begin thinking about what interests you and what questions you have about those interests. As the semester progresses, you will have plenty of time to identify a mentor and define a specific topic. But for now, I’d like to know what anxieties you have about the program in the comments section below. You may be surprised by the commonality of your concerns.