Finding a Research Mentor at the U of A



Learning directly by discovery, research, is a process where you are primarily responsible for acquiring new knowledge on your own. You will have a project where you are the person who carries out the steps necessary to answer to a question for which answers are not clear. However, if you try to start a project from scratch, your chances of succeeding at the project are not very good.

What you need to succeed at research is a mentor, someone with some expertise in your area of research interest who can help you formulate your questions and the means to generate information that will make it possible to answer those questions. Your mentor is also someone who will be there to assist you in interpreting your results in a way that you can answer your starting questions. Your mentor can also help you when you come up against any obstacles to your research.

As you can see, a mentor will be someone with whom you will be interacting in a lot of different ways. Your mentor will have to be someone whom you trust and can communicate comfortably with. Therefore, one of the keys to success in research is choosing the right mentor.

Choosing a mentor

The earlier in your undergraduate career that you pick a mentor, the more likely your research project will be significant.

  • Read about the topic in the appropriate professional literature.
  • Search among the faculty at the U of A who are doing the kind of research that is most like what you want to do.
    • Go to department web pages and look up the individual pages of each member of the department faculty. Read about their research projects and research interests.
    • Talk to Subject Librarians. They can tell you quite a bit about what many faculty members do for their research.
    • Make a list of potential mentors.

  • If you want to find out what research is like in your discipline of interest, you may want to do no more than shadow a researcher to see how the process works. This may involve doing small tasks to help the researcher’s project along. This is done to assist another’s work and will not be your own. If you would like to have a formal record of this work, you may register for the appropriate Zero-credit option in your College or School.
  • If you want to start out right away on your own project, you can start with a Zero-Credit course to see how things go, and then you may switch to an appropriate For-Credit course in your degree program. (Please also register for a Zero-Credit course at the same time because this will help us keep track of all people involved in Undergraduate Research.)
  • Develop some research questions you might be interested in helping to answer.

Remember: interview between you and a potential mentor needs to go both ways. Each potential mentor needs to answer questions that are important to you, and you need to let each potential mentor know something about your level of existing knowledge, your personality, your ideas for projects, etc.

  • Be sure to showcase what you have learned about the topic and what you have learned about the potential mentor’s work.
  • Present each potential mentor with a one or two-page resume.
  • Be sure to let the potential mentor what other obligations you may have and how much time you will have available for a research project.
  • If the potential mentor works in a research group, try to get introduced to the members of that group.
  • Be sure any potential mentor is interested in helping you do the kind of project you may decide to do. If not, this is not someone you should choose as a mentor.
  • Be sure any potential mentor is someone you can get along with. You are not looking for a friend; you are looking for someone who will respect you and treat you as a developing fellow intellectual. If you do not feel that you can get along with a potential mentor, do not choose that person as a mentor.
  • Try not to make a final decision on a mentor until you have dealt with all the possible mentors.