Undergraduate Research Explorer
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Working with Undergraduate Researchers

“U of T wants undergraduate students to gain a real-world understanding of what our scholars across the disciplines are doing to expand our fundamental knowledge about the world and our place in it, and how critical their work is to the development of new policies, ideas, methodologies, pharmaceuticals and life-saving inventions that improve the lives of all Canadians.”

Leah Cowen

Research and Innovation, and Strategic Initiatives

As students enter the undergraduate research space, it’s important to cultivate a respectful, encouraging, collaborative and inclusive research environment where undergraduate students feel comfortable to learn and share their successes, questions and challenges. A healthy research environment establishes clear expectations early on, recognizes students for their research contributions and promotes good research practices and academic integrity; it also considers ways to create equitable, diverse and inclusive research environments.

For undergraduate students, research is a learning opportunity. As you consider how you will offer students training, consider what resources exist within your academic unit, your division, centrally or beyond the University (e.g., does your professional association offer workshops to support students in your field). You may also want to visit the Undergraduate Research Explorer and search by ‘Research Skills Training’.

Below you will find additional considerations related to onboarding students, managing workload and managing conflict.

Supervising and Supporting Students

The Big Picture

Although undergraduate students might be contributing to one part of a larger research project, it’s important to communicate with them about your overall project goals. By doing so, students will continue to be motivated as they have greater appreciation for the significance of the work they’re carrying out. This context also helps support student development as they can better frame their research experiences in other research and professional settings (e.g., job interviews).

Jason Zhang, a second-year undergraduate student in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering conducted research to help support Discovery @ UofToronto: The Educational Initiative. He shared how important it was to understand the broader impact of his work, “It was amazing to see the sheer impact of the work, and the positive influence on the local secondary school students.” Learn more about Jason and his research experiences

Expectations and Alignment of Goals

Undergraduate students often have many competing responsibilities – demanding course loads, jobs, curricular requirements and family responsibilities. Cultivating a healthy research environment means talking to students about time management and work/life balance. You might consider sharing this list of questions with the student(s) you are working with, and allotting time in one of your initial meetings to take them up together.

An open conversation about expectations and goals helps to highlight where you’re both aligned and where you need to have a more in-depth conversation about expectations. It will give students a better understanding of research objectives, deadlines and how to respond when issues come up, which can lead to higher-quality research outcomes.

Consider the approach of Professor Maydianne Andrade, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Toronto Scarborough. After a discussion at a gathering of BIPOC Women in Ecology and Evolution and with her students, Professor Andrade decided to develop a series of resources that would document the previously unwritten practices within her lab (e.g., attendance and punctuality, communication, standards of civility and collegiality). In one example, Professor Andrade details the values and commitments (PDF) upheld by the lab and asked of all of their researchers; it shares how these values and commitments are realized in processes and actions as well as ways to respond when there are violations. 

Sharing these practices in writing helps create an equitable environment for students who might be new to research, and who might not yet have the academic capital or knowledge of standard practices. It also helps to shape a research environment based on professionalism, inclusivity and mutual respect that holds all researchers, including students and faculty members, to the same standards.  

Managing Workload

Students’ research workload should align with their allotted hours and capabilities. While it’s important to share with students the overarching goal of the research project, by breaking down their research work into a series of discrete tasks the work becomes more manageable and less overwhelming. It also helps to create a level of accountability: if a student has not met a deadline for an assigned research task, you could have a discussion and decide on next steps. Are they doing okay? Were your instructions clear? Does the student require training in what is being asked of them? 

Try to also make time to celebrate students’ research achievements. Ask students to reflect on what they have accomplished, what are the continued opportunities for their growth and how they might represent their research experiences in a professional setting. At times, the research projects that students are involved in can engage challenging topics. Ensure health and well-being is woven throughout the resources shared with students and that students have awareness of available supports, including those specific to their self-identified communities.

Managing Conflicts

Many conflicts can be prevented through open communication and by setting expectations with students early on. But if a conflict does arise, discuss the issue with the student early before it escalates. When discussing conflicts with students, use active listening strategies to understand where your viewpoints may differ. Be mindful that resolving conflict may require being flexible and willing to compromise so you can both successfully move forward. 

Together with the student, create a plan for how to best address and resolve the conflict and be clear this will be an ongoing conversation. Throughout your research project together, you might check-in with the student about the issue and any lingering concerns. If you need help with the conflict, consider reaching out to leadership in your academic unit for advice on next steps.

Consider the approach of Professor Dawn Kilkenny, Vice-Dean, First-Year in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering (FASE). In her division, students often undertake independent summer research experiences under the supervision of faculty members. Professor Kilkenny designed the Undergraduate Summer Research Program to help support students in their development as researchers as well as faculty members’ labour in supervising and training research students. With faculty speakers invited to explore different research topics, students come together to learn about lab health and safety, effective literature reviews, writing a scientific abstract, best practices in lab communications and ways to share research findings.