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The Ideal PhD Mentor--A Student's Perspective

"But aren't you supposed to find this out yourself? You are already a postgraduate!"

Those were the familiar words of my graduate supervisor in response to my often-desperate requests for quick solutions to my research problems. I must have been exceptionally inquisitive, but my supervisor's answer was always frustrating for me, the product of a well-established undergraduate system where practically everything was given to me on a plate. We had all the handouts to refer to, and if we still did not follow, we could always access and review the lecture slides or simply ask the tutors during the many tutorials following the lectures.

But then, coming to graduate school, I found myself suddenly responsible for my own academic and research endeavors. And my supervisor made it clear from the beginning that he was not prepared to spoon-feed me. "If it is too easy," he said, "then there is no value in the PhD!" Sounds honorable, and there are plenty of graduate supervisors who think that students have to tough it out, no matter what. That was the stark reality facing me as a fresh postgraduate research student. But I am not alone in this predicament. My peers in the laboratory next door often shared similar problems with me. Like many others, we did not choose our graduate supervisors; rather, our supervisors chose us--perhaps on the basis of their initial assessment of our ability to work independently under them. As our graduate supervisors, they give us general direction on the research program we have to undertake. Much of the responsibility for the running and progress of the research, however, remains primarily with us.

As fellow research students, we helped one another whenever we could, particularly when it came to things such as setting up experiments, employing specialized techniques, or operating sensitive equipment. Among ourselves, we have an unofficial support system. For experimental and technical problems, our first line of support is usually our immediate senior. In true academic tradition, the senior grad students in the laboratory have always been more than happy to pass on their skills and experiences. They are our most frequent source of quick solutions to practical problems. For more intricate problems, though, it is often the laboratory's most senior researchers, the postdoctoral fellows, who stand in to help. These senior members of the research group function as secondary mentors to us.

This top-down control seems to be a long established practice for many senior faculty members who have served as supervisors to many batches of graduate students. They certainly swear by the competence of this system. The boss directs from top down, delegating what is to be done by the laboratory group. And of course, due to his or her own busy schedule and many other commitments, a good deal of the day-to-day responsibility is left to the postdoctoral fellows and experienced technicians who are always around. Indeed, according to these deputies, the boss's job is to direct and advise, not to get into the routine supervision and running of the laboratory and research. He or she doesn't have to be around all the time. But, during that absence, we students must work our way around and act appropriately. That's the way it works, they say.

However, many of us in the early phases of our scientific careers have many concerns with this system. We need more than just a boss and a director of our research programs. Our ideal supervisor has to be someone with not just knowledge and expertise, but also a passion for mentoring and a personal interest in the welfare of the students being overseen. This individual must be ready to share wisdom, knowledge, and professional experiences, as well as technical expertise. It can't be emphasized too much that for graduate students, mentoring and advice are critical movers of the entire graduate program. They have a direct impact on how well we do in our projects and how soon we can earn our degrees.

Quite often, students who are accustomed to careful nurturing during their undergraduate days get distressed upon joining a supervisor who expects the students to seek out their own support. It is not rare to find first-year graduate students raking through the library helplessly trying to find for themselves all the basic information they need just to get started on their research work. Some of the more wretched ones have spent several months doing only that and many more months setting up the experiments, just because they had little practical assistance. Almost clueless in the worst cases, such students soon lose their trail and end up wasting precious time searching for material that turns out to be completely irrelevant. Without hands-on direction, students given just the outline of a research topic to work on often feel lost and alienated. If the supervisor concerned could help such students define their path clearly in the first place, things would be so much easier--and more efficient.

Some supervisors assume that by the time students get their first degree, they are adequately prepared to carry out research projects independently and with minimal or even no supervision. However, the appalling fact is that most undergraduate programs don't prepare students well enough for that. To the majority of fresh graduates, having to suddenly operate unfamiliar instruments and master several assays within a short time poses a great challenge. Today's rapid changes and upgrades in laboratory gadgetry don't make it any simpler. Unfortunately, not all students are bestowed with the empowering driving force that could push them through these difficult times.

In general, every new postgraduate is expected to be aware of the standards and requirements established for the degree being sought, but the responsible supervisor should still help the student to comprehend fully the research problem assigned and to think out hypotheses to test and outcomes to anticipate. Supervisor and student should jointly design and implement a feasible working plan at the very beginning of the program. Subsequently, supervisors should assist students in every practicable way to ensure that they are developing their research skills and acquiring the knowledge needed for a career in research. They should, in particular, make an effort to know and appreciate the goals and interests of every student and help steer each one toward greater initiative, confidence, and independence. In so doing, they should also be monitoring the progress of the research, making it a point to meet with the students regularly to review their progress.

It is undeniable that in a well-established laboratory, senior members of the research group can provide reliable support for students, but the supervisor should still remain the main person with whom to discuss problems, ask for opinions, and seek intellectual advice and support, whenever necessary. Between the supervisor and the student, there should be completely open communications, mutual respect, understanding, and empathy. Ideally, the supervisor should be an expert teacher, a mentor, and a facilitator to catalyze the student's professional growth, such that the student's accomplishment is limited only by the extent of his or her ability.