from Guide to Undergraduate on Nov 13, 2022

How to succeed as a (research) mentee.

Making the most of your research mentee experience is no easy task: The definition of a strong researcher is ill-defined — just like the definition of strong research mentee.

Research mentees1 include anyone conducting research with a senior researcher present; this makes the advice below broadly applicable. The advice is geared towards two specific scenarios: (a) when the mentor is making high-level decisions and leading the project, as well as (b) when the mentee is—you are—making high-level decisions. This could also apply to undergraduates, junior graduate students, research interns, or even newly-minted industry researchers. Expectations are of course higher the more years of experience you have, but the rigor and steps to growth are just the same.

This guide is mostly written from a mentor's standpoint, capturing the trends I've noticed in mentees that successfully publish papers—including those that went on to pursue PhDs at top computer science programs and those that likewise found immense success in industry. I'm very proud of the undergraduate and graduate researchers I've had the chance to mentor over the years, and to all research mentees out there, I hope this guide can help you grow into someone you're proud of too.

Pillars of a successful mentee.

Before making a laundry list of all the minutiae to take care of, I should enumerate the pillars of a successful mentee. Successful mentees accomplish the following:

Every piece of advice in this post is grouped into one of the above three categories. Distinct from being a good researcher, these pieces of advice focus on maximizing how much you can learn from your mentors.

Setting up on day one.

On day one, establish routines and habits that will enable you to ask for help when you need it, and present results when you have then. On your first day on the job, get all your ducks in a row: what you're working on, how you'll collaborate, and what you'll need.

Here are specific todos for each category above:

How to meet expectations.

There are certainly basic expectations for a mentee. Know that the mentee's job is to put in work, but ultimately, it's the mentor's job to ensure that the work you put in goes in a meaningful direction. Here is how to meet expectations in each of the three categories above.

The mentee's job is to put in work, but ultimately, it's the mentor's job to ensure that the work you put in goes in a meaningful direction.

Here is more specific advice that is based on my own lab's setup at Berkeley; you should plan to learn these as you go, since these will be big productivity boosters later on. You also might need these tips to conduct research if your lab uses a local cluster of GPUs:


scpu () {
    srun --nodelist=$1 --pty bash -i

sgpu () {
    srun --nodelist=$1 --pty --gres gpu:${2:-1} bash

In short, here are the three basic expectations of a mentee: (a) Give regular updates, (b) Show up to meetings, and (c) Understand the story. Do your best to tackle low-level problems and keep discussions high-level, but bring up blockers as you run into them.

How to exceed expectations.

Exceeding expectations involves providing your own direction. The more you can guide yourself, and potentially bring up ideas that change the direction of the project, the more you'll grow as a researcher and surprise your mentor. All of these tips below fall in the third category, "Define or contribute to the story". To become an invaluable collaborator, follow these tips:

In short, here are three accessible ways to start exceeding expectations: (a) Read relevant papers, (b) Suggest sanity checks to run or question assumptions, and (c) Practice pitching your research. That's it for tips to succeed as a research mentee. Best of luck on your research journey!

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  1. In terms of time commitment, note that the week before a deadline is very hectic. Be prepared to be in lab in person when it matters. Remote work is certainly possible but not as effective, especially when it's crunch time.