Guest Blog Post: Mentoring an Undegraduate Research Project

One year ago while teaching one of the modules for Media & Communications course I met a fabulous student, Carly, who then I had the pleasure of mentoring as part of the JRA scheme. I am sure all of us encounter students who stand out in their dedication, academic independence and creativity. Although it goes without saying, we should never have, or- even more so- show if we do, favourites among students as students, people in general, never cease to surprise us, the proof is always in the pudding… wait… the final assessment! For the final essay, Carly came up with an innovative idea and conducted scale-appropriate research. I wasn’t at all surprised when after the course had ended she contacted me about the JRA scheme for which she decided to develop her essay idea into a proposal. It was my first experience even hearing about the scheme but had I known about it I would have suggested it to her myself anyway. In fact, since then, I have had my eyes peeled for similar students who had amazed me deserve to have a go at the scheme but sometimes might need a little push of encouragement.

In a nutshell, the scheme is an undergraduate version of a PhD application process- a student needs to develop a research idea, find a supervisor (who is an employed academic) and a mentor (a doctoral researcher), and communicate their research plan as a proposal which with the supervisor and mentor’s help gets submitted.

Carly’s supervisor and I were absolutely delighted when Carly got it! The scheme takes place across 8 weeks in summer when a student basically conducts their research while being supervised like a doctoral student. In the last year’s edition of the scheme, students were to prepare a poster at the end of their projects, but I know that in previous years the scheme had called for written articles. Even this time many students decided to develop written evidence of their work to be later submitted for academic journals. While the supervisor’s role is more academically formal, the mentor provides whatever support is needed- helping the supervisor review the project and simply being a colleague in crime to the student. For me, the JRA scheme was a fantastic experience on an array of levels and many of them I couldn’t have envisaged before starting it. Let me just name the three most important ones:

  • Professionally speaking (as I know this is what we all care about!), it was an opportunity to get experience supervising someone. Although not strictly a supervisor, the mentor can be seen as a supervisor in the making and, as such, it is one of these rare, informal training for a teacher and a young academic that simply cannot be overvalued.
  • Working alongside, and I guess in between, two women at different stages of their careers created a sense of community, sisterhood that is rare and incredibly precious in the current, cut-throat academic culture. The three of us are immigrants from different parts of the world, trying to progress, to ‘make it’ as non-native speakers. That proved to be a platform for personal, feminist and professional solidarity between us.
  • Last but certainly not least, it is a chance to share all the know-how of academia- you know, skills and practices we take for granted at a certain level and perhaps do not even consider to be ‘knowledge’, such as ‘how to make a clear argument’, ‘how to look for conferences and publishing opportunities’, ‘how to stir my career and choose a good MA course’, to name just a few. For me it has been an incredibly important experience to see how far I personally have come to be able to mentor and support another young academic.

Overall I regard my participation in the scheme as one of the highlights of my doctoral journey as it helped me to find my own confidence through helping someone else. As always, in any professional and academic endeavour, it’s the friendships, the camaraderie that matter the most, and when you get a chance to be part of the scheme as a supervisor or a mentor I urge you to look for and develop those.

– Karolina Szpyrko

If you would like to find out more about how you can get involved in supporting JRAs, please get in touch with the Sussex Undergraduate Research Office.

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