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The Making of a Mentor


Dear MentorDoctor,

I am a newly hired faculty member and have been successful in setting up my lab with the necessary equipment and acquiring a few students to work for me. I have some ideas about what not to do as a mentor, as it pertains to my students, but I?d appreciate some pointers on how to be the best PI possible.

Sincerely,Still Learning the Academic Ropes

Luis Echegoyen: One of the most important things I learned as a young assistant professor was never to assume that my co-workers knew exactly what I wanted and expected from them. It is easy to think that all others who decide to pursue a graduate career in your area also share your work ethic and passion for the subject. Many times, this is not case.

In dealing with students, many of the problems that I encountered early on, as well as later in my career as a mentor, arose from my assumption that my students were exactly like me and thus there was no need to clearly establish what my expectations were. I thought they were understood implicitly. I also thought, incorrectly, that if I worked hard, my students would follow suit. It is very important to establish your expectations from the beginning, including working hours, setting up schedules for weekly meetings (alone and with the whole group), setting parameters for measuring progress, revising these as needed if progress is not achieved, and so on. Once you set the stage and clearly establish expectations, the work will flow more easily and there will be fewer negative surprises for either of you.

At the same time, it is important to establish good rapport and encourage open communication. If a student is unhappy with the way things are going, you are much better off hearing it directly from the student than through third parties. An unhappy student can create a lot of problems in a research group and cause considerable disruption and low morale. Identify such cases early on and try to resolve them quickly. If you can't resolve them, consider severing the relationship. It sounds harsh, but I have seen many students who were unhappy with their advisers and vice versa. Those situations lead to increased tension and morale problems.

Hopefully, though, you will never have a case like this and you will manage to find people who share your goals and attitude. It is very important for you, a young assistant professor, to start your career with the best possible students. So be very selective and forgo numbers for quality and affinity. Good luck in your new role.

Isabella Finkelstein: Congratulations on selecting a wonderful career. It seems that you are off to a good start with your laboratory. Be sure to schedule weekly meetings with your students. Each student should report on his or her results for the week as well as plans for the next week. This is important for the overall progress of your laboratory. If you have postdocs and graduate and undergraduate students, establish a continuum in which each level assists in the training of those at the level below. It is important that your laboratory work as a unit to maximize its research output; it helps to involve your students in as many aspects of the laboratory as possible. Having your students assist in writing papers is essential for their training and important for your progress as a faculty member.

I assume that as a faculty member you are also teaching. You may have the opportunity to mentor students in your classes or as an adviser. Remember that a faculty position is multifaceted. As a new faculty member you must be able to balance all the requirements of your new position: research, teaching, and service. It is important that you have a mentor in your department to guide you as you start your new position. If you don't have one, ask your department chair to suggest a faculty member to serve in this capacity for you. Good luck.

James Stith: You are embarking upon one of the most rewarding and satisfying careers in existence. Working with students will provide rewards that exceed the glow you will get when many students express their gratitude for your advice and assistance. Additionally, the seeds you plant will grow where you least expect them to.

As you work with students at all levels, show the excitement and pride you feel for your discipline. Share your reasons for entering the discipline with students and why you find the discipline professionally rewarding.

Show your students what they need to do to be successful in the field. Give them a sense of the activities they should be involved in if they hope to make a contribution to the profession. Take them to professional meetings. Introduce them to the leaders in the field, and encourage them to play an active role.

Be critical but supportive. Provide the emotional support they will need to get over the hurdles that we all face. As a mentor, you want to stretch them so they can reach their full potential, yet give them enough latitude to tackle their problems on their own. Be ready to step in and assist when you sense that their frustration level is getting too high.

Finally, help them understand the value of working within a team and always urge them to look at the big picture as well as their own individual progress. Good luck.

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