Over the last couple of years, I have developed a passion for improving the research enterprise, largely through the nonprofit organization Future of Research. Much of that entails making sure that graduate students and postdocs are able to work in an environment that is safe, welcoming and positive. Scientific discoveries cannot be made in a setting that does not foster individual creativity and independence of thought.
A lot of the changes that must occur in order to improve the research enterprise start with the faculty. Mentoring grad students and postdocs is inherently complicated by the conflict between the training they require and the labor they provide. But to truly mentor someone, faculty members must look beyond an individual’s ability to perform experiments and publish papers toward actually developing that person professionally and making their graduate or postdoctoral experience both enriching and worthwhile.
That is part of our organization’s goal with our current mentoring effort, which starts with a meeting of stakeholders in Chicago this coming June 14 to design a plan for how to shift academic culture toward a central focus on mentoring. We believe that some of this change might be achieved by using a third party to evaluate departmental and institutional mentoring — which is one potential option for incentivizing good mentoring practices in academe that we are examining.
The True Meaning of Mentoring
Mentoring is not limited to advising — it requires truly investing in the development of another person. For that reason, we can find mentors in many places, and they need not be only academic advisers.
Some advisers are understandably quite concerned about the viability of their laboratory and will therefore go to great lengths to ensure that experiments are getting done, papers are getting published and reviewed, and grants are being written — often using trainees as means to an end. (See our related peer-review work.) But true mentors realize that often the pace of research may have to slow down temporarily if they are to effectively train the graduate students and postdocs in their labs.
Teaching someone to perform a good experiment with proper controls and then correctly interpret the data, for example, takes more time and effort compared to just letting them loose and expecting results on a weekly basis. Yet training them may, in fact, lead to higher productivity in the lab.
I personally find that faculty members often want to be good mentors but simply don’t know how to do it. I wrote a post recently about being human first that highlighted the idea of prioritizing someone’s development over their identity as a scientist. My Ph.D. adviser repeatedly prioritized me: she taught me how to do rigorous experiments and write and speak about my science. (I still use these skills today outside academe.) She often was tough on me, but I knew I needed that in order to grow — and that if she wasn’t constantly talking with me about how things were going and pushing me to go higher and higher, she wasn’t really doing her job well. Over the years I have come to appreciate that type of positive mentoring and realized how much it’s helped me develop professionally.
It also made me wonder about what good mentoring looks like and how we can help faculty be effective mentors. While much of the advice in this area is geared toward trainees in shaping their own professional development, mentors can make or break the entire experience for a graduate student or postdoc. And as far as I’ve seen, there’s been relatively little discussion about how to mentor the mentors — even though that is vital to improving the research enterprise.
Mentoring the Mentors
We can achieve the positive environment we want to have in academe in large part by helping mentors perform better. Some different questions we might consider include:
Are good mentors born or made? Being a good mentor starts with being a decent human being and treating others as we would like to be treated. We should always be respectful of the needs and wishes of other people and realize that they may be different from our own. Human decency can be taught from an early age, but our life experiences also provide us with the opportunity to improve. If we are not happy with the way we handled a certain situation, we can always apologize and make it better. We should be aware of our own flaws and encourage others to show theirs in order to develop meaningful relationships, including positive mentoring relationships.
When is the last time you talked to your trainee? Really talking to someone and making an effort to understand where they are coming from can mean a lot to a struggling graduate student or postdoc. I can speak from experience that having such a great Ph.D. adviser whom I could talk to about both scientific and personal dilemmas was very helpful.
Therefore, one piece of advice for mentors reading this post is to step away from your desk and take your graduate student or postdoc out for lunch, or go have a cup of coffee with someone in your lab who might be struggling. Similarly, if someone is doing well in the lab, recognize that and use them as a role model for others. And direct other people to that person so that they also feel valued.
Have you discussed careers and established clear expectations? One of the hardest things about mentoring graduate students and postdocs today is the fact that the system is antiquated, focused on training mini-mes who plan only to go into faculty work. Mentors don’t know how to prepare trainees for nonacademic careers or even — as was in my case — how to tell them to leave the lab if they are not interested in academic careers. Therefore, trainees are often left to figure things out on their own. Mentors should clearly lay out expectations from the start in order to ensure that trainees’ work is not a waste of time or a bad fit on both sides, because that is both painful and unproductive.
If expectations and needs align, in particular around academic or nonacademic career interests, mentors should seek out and point their trainees to resources about particular careers — starting with myIDP, which I personally used as a starting point as well, followed by much additional exploration. They should also realize that alumni from the lab or the university can be useful sources of information for trainees. Most important, mentors should respect graduate students’ and postdocs’ career choices even if different from their own, and seek to support them as best they can.
Why are you doing this? In today’s world that is always on the go, we forget why we do what we do. As a mentor, why did you get into science in the first place? Forgetting the answer can hurt not only your ability to work well and be happy but also your capacity to motivate trainees to be the best that they can be. You should take a break from your daily life and write down what you like about science and are grateful for in your job, or just take the time to chat with your lab members. My Ph.D. adviser used to talk with us routinely about our personal lives following discussions about experiments to see what else was going on and to find out if we needed help. And many times, we came away from these simple conversations feeling better about our day and with new research ideas.
As a mentor, a lot of times your trainees can remind you why you have the job that you have, and their own enthusiasm for the work can be contagious. Or you might be able to inspire them and remind them why they are doing it in the first place, which again should be one of your main daily goals as a mentor.
Over all, mentoring to me comes down to building rich personal relationships and recognizing the value of every person that you have the pleasure of interacting with. As a mentor, you should remember that you are learning from your trainees just as much as they are from you — and that life lessons are typically bidirectional.
If we realize that we are all here to learn from each other, we’ll be able to start breaking down those barriers that are often so strong in academe and maybe even some of the power dynamics that often impede such real relationships from forming. It is vital that we build and sustain those relationships over time, so that we can all thrive as a community, both within academe and outside it.