My former colleague, and good friend, Danielle S. Rudes originally turned me onto the nested mentorship model. In my current work, I’ve been able to adapt this model to build a team of undergraduate and graduate research assistants studying how we conceptualize justice in sociolegal scholarship. While future posts will discuss the project specifically, here I want to discuss the nested mentorship model. The nested mentorship model builds off of a “see, hear, do” approach, exposing students to research.
Students are first introduced to research by seeing all of the pieces from proposals to finished publications. I typically show them a previously published journal article on a similar subject to what we are going to study. If it is possible, I start with early drafts of funding proposals so students can get a feel for how I originally envisioned the work. They I guide them through a few iterations of manuscripts, and eventually show them the finished product – a published article. During this “see” process I want to show them that, scholars, published academics, their professors, edit and revise. Things rarely go according to plan, and we never “turn in” or publish a first draft. I want to instill in them a culture of editing and continual refinement and progress.
Then, students “hear” about the research process by talking with scholars immediately senior to them. While I might seem like a distant authority figure to the students when we’re first starting out, I want them to hear from students a bit closer to their reality. They talk with graduate students and senior undergraduate students who have worked on research with me. That lays a foundation for expectations and the culture of our research team.
Finally, students “do” by participating in the project. We develop students’ skills incrementally so the research process does not overwhelm them. In my current project students are helping to code articles. Trainings for coding include a faculty member, graduate student and senior undergraduate so students can hear from people with different experience levels and have access to people who have recently developed the skills they are learning as well as leaders on the project.
The undergraduate research assistants (UGRAs) actively engage in the research process. From coding, to methodological reasoning, and from analysis to theory building, I try to foster an active learning environment for research assistants at all levels. The hands-on experience empowers students to navigate the iterative, rigorous research process and explore their intellectual potential in a way unique from traditional coursework. Because many of the students hold underrepresented identities, they experience newfound collegiality working in the nested mentor model. They often find connections with other students with similar experiences, as well as graduate students who they can relate to and inquire about potential next academic steps.
Exposing students to a team of mentors not only benefits them, but also makes my time and commitment to project leadership more manageable. Students often rely on each other and create a culture of support and socialization without constant hands-on supervision from me as the faculty member. The model is fluid rather than hierarchical, and students always have access to a team of mentors. Students access mentorship from UGRAs immediately their senior as much as, if not more than, graduate students and faculty on the project. The access and camaraderie build confidence and allow students to find their scholastic voice.
I’d love to hear more about your experiences with mentorship and undergraduate student research assistants in the comments below.
 See the following for a full discussion of our earlier work with undergraduate student researchers in the classroom: Portillo, Shannon, Danielle S. Rudes, Lincoln Sloas, Kirsten Hutzell and Paula Salamoun (2013). “Students as Scholars: Integrating Research into the Undergraduate Classroom Experience” Journal of Criminal Justice Education 24(1): 68-96.