What is a research mentor? (tldr: It's probably not a PI, and that’s not a bad thing)

Emily Levy in the field doing research.

Written by Emily Levy, a Muser research mentor and a graduate student in Prof. Susan Alberts’ Lab Group in Duke’s Biology Department.

A research mentor is the person who works most closely with undergraduates on the project. Research groups can include lots of people: professor, principal investigator, director of a research group, research scientists, post-docs, lab techs, lab managers, and graduate students.

Most research mentors are not the heads of research groups.  Keep in mind that that a research group director is likely the busiest person in the research group, and often the best mentoring comes from people in other roles within the research group. Plus, the person advertising the project is probably the person most excited about the project, and that counts for a lot in my book.

A few practical notes for undergraduate applicants: (1) When you click on a Project, look at the ‘Mentor position’ section to see what the mentor’s role is in the research group. If the mentor is not a group director but you wanted to work with that person in some capacity, ask the mentor what your involvement would be with the director specifically. For example: Would you have any 1-on-1 or 2-on-1 meetings with the team leader? Would you be invited to attend and/or participate in lab meetings? (2) If the ‘Mentor position’ does say project director, ask whether you’d be working with that person directly, or if you’d be working primarily with someone else in the research group. (3) If your mentor isn’t a project director, don’t fret – usually, the professors and directors will still write letters of recommendation! It’s probably ideal if your mentor and the director co-write the letter, with general statements from the director and specific anecdotes from your mentor.