Research Mentorship is Critical for High School Students: 7 Reasons Why
6 minute read
High school students have been getting increasingly involved with research, and for good reason: it’s interesting, it’s fun, and it helps them stand out on a college application. So, why should students seek out a mentor, when it is something that they could conceivably do on their own? In this article, I’m going to discuss why research mentorship is critical for high school students. As a Polygence mentor since 2021, I have mentored five students, including my current students. While all students and projects are unique, there are recurring ways that I have been able to help my students.
1. Refining your research interests
One benefit of research mentorship is that mentors can assist students in refining their research interests. Narrowing down the scope of research is a critical skill that transfers to other areas of life. It teaches students to identify what is most important to them and direct their attention towards that, resulting in the best possible final product.
Students often have many research ideas that they are interested in, which is great. When I mentor students at Polygence, our first session together is where my students and I decide on the research topic for our time together. As a Polygence mentor, my goal is to give my students the opportunity to conduct meaningful research on the topic of their choice. I help students narrow down their broad research ideas to 1-2 specific questions that we can fully research in ten sessions.
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For example, one of my students wanted to design a mobile app to help users with their mental health and study if their app actually helped people in the real world. It would be nearly impossible to design an app to help users with every possible mental health concern. In our first session, my mentee and I discussed the importance of narrowing down the focus to 1-2 mental health concerns, eventually deciding on anxiety and depression.
2. Conducting research without feeling lost
Mentors also guide students during the actual research process so that students don’t feel stuck. Research can be overwhelming in the beginning, especially if students have never done it before, so they may feel lost on their own. During each meeting, I give my mentees specific, actionable items that they should work on before our next meeting. For example, they may need to:
find a publicly available dataset that we can use;
draft a version of a survey that we are launching;
analyze our research data, etc.
I am always available via the Polygence chat system in case they need help between sessions as well. In the following meeting, we discuss what they worked on and then do research together. Mentors are there to give students both academic guidance and emotional support. Research is hard! It’s important that you feel supported throughout the process.
3. Developing practical skills in conducting research
It is also helpful for high school students to have a mentor because mentors share their knowledge with their students, helping students to develop practical skills in conducting research. Whether it’s coding skills, mathematical or statistical analytical skills, or navigating processes like IRB review, you will gain valuable experience in areas that will give you a leg up when you get to college.
To offer a concrete example, many students have not yet been exposed to statistical testing. Statistical testing is an important part of research because it is essentially where you determine if your results occurred by chance or because of something that you studied. During our sessions, I teach students the basics of statistical analyses, and then I leave them to do the rest of the analyses at home. This independent work allows them to really hone their skills, which they will then take with them to college and beyond.
4. Writing research papers
Mentors help students write formal research papers, which is a unique type of writing that many high school students are poorly trained in. This is a problem because most of the academic work that is required of students in college revolves around organizing your ideas and arguments via academic writing. Having a strong foundation in research paper writing is crucial to success in college and beyond.
It’s really important to me that I collaborate with students to write our research papers so that it is a learning experience. After giving them general guidance on how to write a section, they write that section in their own words. I have worked with two students to publish our research in the Journal of Emerging Investigators, which is a journal for middle and high school students. My mentee and I published one research paper where we retrieved Reddit posts and analyzed them using multiple methods. My current mentee and I just received news that our manuscript was accepted pending revisions, which is very exciting!
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5. Navigating the peer review process
What is the peer review process, you might ask? It’s the revision process by which a journal offers feedback to the researcher to ensure that only the highest quality research is published. In most cases, experienced researchers in the appropriate field read the paper and determine if it should be published. High school students typically have not encountered peer review before, so as a mentor, I help students navigate this process. “Accepted pending revisions” means that there are a few items we need to revise, and if we revise them appropriately, our work will be published.
Mentors, as people who have had a lot of experience publishing and navigating this process, are always available to offer advice and step in. In my case, I also see this as an opportunity to give students a chance to take ownership of the revisions themselves. I have really enjoyed publishing work in the Journal of Emerging Investigators because the reviewers have given constructive feedback that applies to the specific paper we submitted and research in general. My students and I have both learned a lot from their comments.
6. Diving into professional networking
Research mentorship is also useful because research is a type of professional networking. Interacting with a mentor will also prepare you to interact with people older and more experienced than you in college - e.g., graduate teaching assistants, PhD students, professors. Many students feel shy or awkward speaking with these types of authority figures, which is perfectly natural. They may not have had much 1-on-1 interaction with their teachers in high school. From engaging with a mentor regularly in a low-stakes way, you’ll gain the confidence you need to approach teacher’s assistants and professors when you need everything from extra help in a course to a letter of recommendation for an internship.
7. Learning how to learn
Finally, while conducting research with a mentor, you’ll learn how to learn new skills quickly. Your mentor will challenge you to use advanced methods to solve your research question. I am always so impressed by what students learn on the fly to complete their research projects. My mentee scraped massive amounts of posts from Reddit by developing code in Python, which they had never done before. Another student used machine learning methods to study a large public dataset. As we speak, my current student is developing a mobile application from scratch.
Taken together, it’s clear that high school research mentorship is extremely useful for preparing you for college. You’ll develop your skills in working independently, learning how to learn, and communicating your research.
If you want to join Polygence and get matched with a mentor to guide you in your research goals, please apply for our mentorship program here. Even if writing a research paper isn’t your preferred way of presenting your work, each Polygence project involves some method of showcasing your work. This showcase can be something creative, like a YouTube video or a podcast, if you prefer that! Read more about different ways of showcasing your work here.
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