Mentoring: Advice from the Advised


First published in AWIS Magazine Volume 29, issue 1 (Winter 2000)

Most of us have fond memories of someone who had an unusually strong impact on our academic choices. By acting as a mentor to their students, a supportive elementary school teacher, an encouraging high school chemistry instructor, or a motivating molecular biology professor can directly influence decisions leading to a career in science. In graduate school, the mentor relationship becomes more formal and individualized. As first-year graduate students, we are told that choosing a thesis advisor is one of the most important decisions we will make, that our choice can drastically influence events throughout graduate training and beyond. Similar pressures are placed on choosing an advisor for a postdoctoral appointment, with even greater emphasis on the impact this advisor can have on our future careers. No one can overlook the prominent role advisors play in young scientists' lives; likewise, few can deny that there is substantial variation in the capabilities of scientists to fulfill these mentoring roles. What are the qualities of a "good" mentor? How do some fall short of these expectations? These questions can best be answered from the viewpoint of "the advised," the graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who are constantly reappraising their choice of mentors, keeping track of "good" and "bad" mentoring practices as they experience them. With this in mind, I interviewed several postdocs and graduate students about their experiences with mentors, their thoughts on how to improve mentoring, and their definition of a successful mentor.

Students and postdocs are eager to discuss their "best" and "worst" experiences with mentors. Most of the "good" experiences involved high availability and individual attention. For example, students benefited from regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings to discuss experiments, troubleshoot, and keep the lines of communication open. Mentors who are aware of when students need extra attention to get through a difficult stretch versus when to let students find their own direction also get very high marks. The "worst" experiences with mentors ranged from failure of the advisor to effectively manage laboratory personnel to an advisor's lackadaisical attitude about individual research projects. Successful management of a laboratory is extremely difficult to accomplish in addition to the other responsibilities of a principle investigator. However, mishandling conflicts within the lab affects the entire group and can often be quite extensive and career altering. Therefore, some time and effort should be spent on maintaining a healthy work environment. As for attitudes about individual research projects, advisors should be careful not to trivialize the research efforts of a trainee. Even if the work is not important for the career of the mentor, it is likely crucial for the student or postdoc and should be given the proper attention.

I think it is critical to note that all of the people I interviewed feel that mentors have a significant influence on their scientific lives. We are affected not only by the scientific methods of our mentors, but also by their attitudes and policies toward the science community. Given the importance of mentoring, when does "mentor training" take place? Currently, little is being done formally to train scientists to become good mentors. Those I interviewed suggested that universities develop a mandatory workshop or short course for faculty aimed at developing mentoring skills. These types of courses, commonly found in the corporate world, could easily be tailored to the demands and situations specific to scientific mentors and trainees. Optimistically, mentor-training courses would be relatively standardized and offered at most universities, at least partially equalizing the inherently variable nature of mentor practices. On the pessimistic side, the type of person who would most benefit from mentor training may be the least likely to take it seriously. Nonetheless, better mentor training remains a worthy goal.

Since few training programs currently exist, how are today's graduate students and postdocs preparing themselves for future mentoring responsibilities? They are drawing upon their own experiences and concerns to determine how they can become better advisors, observing what skills are lacking in "unsuccessful" mentors and what skills are developed in "successful" mentors. Also, they actively are seeking opportunities to practice mentoring. For example, they are requesting to advise undergraduate or high school students on summer research projects or volunteering to mentor secondary students conducting science fair projects. These types of activities should be encouraged and viewed as positive training opportunities and not as "distractions" to their research.

What qualities do postdocs and graduate students most appreciate in a mentor? The group I interviewed ranked patience, enthusiasm, compassion, and availability as most important. These seem to form a rather basic set of characteristics that define a good person. But the fact that scientists-in-training included them in their list may reflect a memory lapse on the part of current mentors as to how vital these traits are for successful advising. Most scientists engage in a series of mentor/trainee relationships throughout their education and career.

At some point, the trainee becomes the mentor and a fresh lot of trainees enter the cycle. Knowing this, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are in a unique position to observe current mentor practices and develop their own mentoring styles. Hopefully, when current trainees become advisors, they will remember the importance of the fundamental characteristics listed above and actively integrate them into their new roles as mentors. For current mentors with a desire to improve their skills, perhaps the best training tool is the memory of their own experiences.

Editor's note: This is the first of three articles on mentoring that Next Wave intends to republish from the Winter 2000 issue of AWIS Magazine (Vol. 29; iss. 1).

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