Opening the Line of Communication when Mistakes happen

When you are mentoring undergraduates it will happen, you write out instructions or they work on a synthesis and the 5th time something goes wrong.  One of the most important things is having a relationship with your undergraduate where they can come to you when something goes wrong.


One of the first thing I do is when I meet a new undergraduate I discuss if something goes wrong, for example you are are synthesizing and you put in the wrong salt and you know it.  Please come to me and tell me.  One of the worst thing is that we have results we can’t explain or we have a great result and we can’t reproduce it.  I won’t be mad we will just fix the mistake and move on.


The other thing I do is that even though they are working independently I check in with them.  I ask them how it’s going?  I small chat with them when they first come in for a little bit (for about 5 minutes) and then explain what we are going to do that day.  I ask them while they are working what they think their next steps are.


Even after all this it still happens a mistake is made, we are all human.    Now how do we react.  Remember this can be critic to if another another mistake is reported.

  1.  Most undergraduates I work with are very apologetic when a mistake is made.  I put it in perspective.  Was anyone hurt? No!  We can start over, we can fix this.  Let’s work together and start over
  2. Do you understand where the mistake was made?  This is critical so that the same mistake doesn’t keep happening
  3. Let’s fix the mistake together.  This way the undergraduate learns from their mistake and whatever happen has a solution.
  4. I usually tell them a story about when I was learning in the laboratory and made a mistake.  This helps them to see that all of us make mistakes.  It’s all part of the learning process.
  5. Then after everything is back on track we continue on with the project and I thank them for informing me of the mistake made.

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