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Mentoring Manual

Handling the unexpected

As faculty we are all used to reacting to the dynamic situations of funding, research, and graduate student experiences. The only difference for a field placement student is that the time scale for their experience is much shorter than graduate students. Further, because they are early in their academic career, the student will also likely have fewer personal resources to handle the unexpected situation. Thus your attention and support is even more time critical than for most graduate students.

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How to “salvage” a placement

Unlike a well-designed course, where the lectures are carefully divided, and assignments, quizzes, and exams designed and scheduled, research can sometimes appear more like a random, chaotic sequence of events where we say “Oh cool – look what we found…” While this is clearly an exaggeration, the point is to expect the unexpected in research. Remember, the Mickelson-Morely experiment failed – it is often referred to as the most famous experiment to fail. If research moves along in a smooth methodical pace, then one could argue that risks are not being taken. Equipment breaks, experiments do not work, fields flood, people forget to order chemicals … plan for these barriers as well as those that you cannot predict.


  • Students: persistence
  • Mentors: plan contingency work and plan to spend additional time with a student as needed

Mentors: If equipment breaks or chemicals run out, causing a critical element of a student’s research project to be put on hold, one of the worst choices is to give the student more papers to read. Before the placement begins, devise multiple projects or approaches to the project. You may start the student on one project, but if this really does not work, then a change is easily made. Avoid having a student who showed up at the beginning of the summer, excited with a vision of possibilities, leave the experience saying “the equipment broke so I had to sit and read papers about what I might have done.”

Contingency planning takes more time and it may be inconvenient, but it improves the program and averts disaster for the student.

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What to do if a mentor leaves or is planning to leave the university

If faculty or administrators know they are going to be leaving their post, but are mentoring students, they should do what they can to make certain the students receive the needed guidance before they leave. Coordination with administrators and other faculty can smooth the transition to a new mentor for any affected students. Graduate students may be especially vulnerable to this.

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