IGE: Enhancing doctoral research training through cascading mentorship (Anteater huddles)

AgencyNational Science Foundation
PanelNSF Research Traineeship
LocationUniversity of California, Irvine
Start dateJune 2021
End dateMay 2024
Budget$ 420,299.00
Agency code2105661
LeadBarbara Sarnecka
OtherJoachim Vandekerckhove
OtherSusan Charles


This National Science Foundation Innovations of Graduate Education (IGE) award to the University of California-Irvine will test a cascading mentorship program for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) doctoral students. A centuries-old model of doctoral mentoring assumed that students learn by working alongside their faculty advisors at the lab bench. However, research as evolved into a team activity with advisors and students serving different roles and rarely working together at the same task. In this environment, students typically learn most research skills from advanced graduate students and postdoctoral researchers rather than their faculty advisors. Cascading mentorship describes such a model of mentoring from a rich network of faculty and peers. Doctoral students who receive cascading mentorship are much more likely to develop strong research skills than those who do not regardless of the quality of mentoring received from their primary faculty advisors. However, not all students are trained in large, well-functioning labs with ready-made cascading mentorship networks. In addition, factors such as shared or dissimilar cultural identity with the majority of faculty and differences in first-generation students’ access to faculty mentors, friends, or family members with doctoral degree experience may result in differences in the quality of mentoring. Thus, when doctoral programs fail to provide rich networks of cascading mentorship, it is the students from minority communities who are likely to suffer most.

In this project, approximately 65 advanced graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in cognitive science will be trained to lead cascading mentorship groups of five to ten doctoral students each. The groups will use proven pedagogical methods to help members plan their research, organize their time, and learn to produce the forms of writing on which academic success depends such as: literature reviews, funding proposals, research reports, etc. This project will address research questions related to four scale-up challenges: 1) group leader effects, i.e., whether the approach works when these mentorship groups are led by advanced graduate students rather than by a faculty member; 2) implementation cost, i.e., whether these groups can be supported in a way that is affordable for most doctoral programs; 3) long-term effects of cascading mentorship over a period of years in a variety of domains including: writing quantity and quality; progress through the graduate program; mental health and well-being; and 4) broad suitability, i.e., whether the model is equally effective for all students or whether only a subset of students benefit. Results from this project will help departments decide whether to adopt a cascading mentorship model program-wide or offer this model as an option for a subset of students.