The Training Page


The Perks of Mentoring Summer Interns

You’re likely to soon see a flux of young, energetic new faces in your laboratory. That’s because it’s time for summer internships. For eight weeks between May and August, approximately 1,300 students—from high schools, community colleges, and four-year universities as well as from professional and graduate schools—will join the NIH community, where they will attend lectures, participate in workshops, conduct research, and present their findings at Summer Poster Day on Thursday, August 9, 2018, in the Natcher Conference Center (Building 45). Interns will be able to develop professional connections, learn new skills, and gain insights into whether graduate school is for them. So what’s in it for the mentors—most of them postdocs—who train them?

“Mentoring interns is your chance to pay it forward,” said Lori Conlan, director of Postdoctoral Services and Career Services at the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE). “Many scientists say that their first research experience was a key influence early in their career.”

Indeed, nearly every researcher has benefitted from good mentorship. Most of the summer students will come to NIH with little to no research experience, but they will leave with a wealth of fresh knowledge and newfound confidence. Seeing that happen can be an extremely rewarding experience for the mentor.

Having a strong mentoring track record can have a profound effect on your career and be an influential factor when you’re later applying for positions post-NIH regardless whether that is in academia, industry, or another career.

Being an effective mentor takes practice, so taking in summer interns provides excellent opportunities to hone critical mentoring skills. Mentoring requires a tailored approach for each student. Some require extensive one-on-one time, whereas others need minimal direction with only gentle nudges and encouragement along the way. Being able to properly assess skill levels and adjust accordingly can be instrumental in creating a positive experience for both the mentor and mentee.

“Learning the elements of a good research project is also critical,” said Conlan. In just eight weeks, students must take an idea, generate data, and present their findings. Mentors can help students learn the important skills of getting the scope of the research question right and developing realistic projects that can be completed within a finite amount of time. Those skills can later come in handy for anyone who will mentor or supervise people in the future.

Supervising a summer intern can also push mentors to understand a project on a new level. Teaching mentees about a research project is an excellent way to practice all-important science communication skills. It requires being able to balance a description of the big picture of a research question with the provision of the necessary details. Throughout our careers, we will need to be able to communicate our work with experts and novices alike, so developing communication and storytelling skills now can be valuable. And expect questions from the students—lots of them. Discussing background literature or project data can result in challenging, insightful, and maybe even stumper questions. In these ways, mentoring can deepen an understanding of a mentor’s own research and enable us to think about it in new ways.

Mentoring summer interns can truly be a win-win for everyone. Mentees get hands-on experience in answering real-life research questions, and mentors refine mentoring skills that will serve them throughout their careers.

Whether you are new to mentoring or need a refresher, OITE offers resources and courses: 

2018 Summer Research Mentor Training: May 15 and 23, 2018, Building 60 (Cloisters), Lecture Hall Room 142 (10:00 a.m.–noon each day). To register go to

OITE website for details and updates:

OITE Careers Blog, for lots of mentoring advice and other information:

OITE also offers training for the summer interns:

Institute Training Directors: Check with them for more information.