Dear Science Student,
Things have changed since some of us were in your shoes. Science has become more global, complex, cooperative, and competitive. This means that, today more than ever, you need oversight and guidance in your career. Yet, many faculty members—especially those trained in previous decades—don’t fully appreciate how to teach you to be competitive today. They came of age (scientifically) in a completely different era and may not understand what students today expect of them. It's important that you realize this.
The critical point you most need to understand is that it is up to you to fix things.
Some faculty were trained at a time when an adviser’s input was limited to suggesting a project and writing a letter of recommendation when the thesis was completed. They just don’t understand this mentoring business: What do you students need and expect? The concept of mentoring is less alien to younger faculty, but many still lack insight into your expectations of them.
In fact, it isn't easy. After all, your expectations can vary widely and over time, depending on your unique experiences and personality. It isn't common, but some students thrive on adviser neglect, gaining self-confidence in a hands-off environment where you can test hypotheses or run with your own idea. Most of you, though, would flounder in such an environment. You don't yet have the knowledge or the scientific instincts to go it alone—or maybe you just suffer from self-doubt due to lack of experience.
Of course, your needs change as you gain experience. Early in your training, you need guidance to learn to safely use complicated instrumentation and to think like a scientist. However valuable this guidance is initially, over time this oversight can stifle your creativity, hinder your independence, and keep you from understanding the scientific process. We learn from experiments that do not work; we need the freedom to be able to fail occasionally, and then discover why we failed.
It is easy for mentors and advisers to get it wrong. We can miss in either direction. When intellectual support or encouragement is lacking—or when the freedom to engage in creative thought is stifled—young scientists can feel dispirited, isolated, or disappointed.
The critical point you most need to understand is that it is up to you to fix things. You need to channel frustration into determining what you need and then go out and find it. You need—and have a right to expect—a scientific support system that provides highly personalized guidance when and as you need it. Your support system should be sufficiently observant of your progress to know when to hold your hand firmly, when to ease the grip, and when to get out of the way.
Yet, it's up to you to create and maintain a scientific, social, and intellectual support system that works for you now and adapts as you develop. You are the only one who knows what you need, and you shouldn't trust anyone to guess.
What should such a support system look like, and how do you go about setting it up? Answering that question is the main purpose of this essay. Your support system should have at least four very different components. These roles can be thought of as different hats that the people around you can wear. Each of the hats is critical to your intellectual, emotional, and scientific maturation. No one person can wear all of these hats, since some of them are inherently in conflict with others. Here's an introduction to these four hats.
The Scientific Adviser or Principal Investigator (PI) hat. To you, the student, the primary obligation of the person wearing this hat is directing your research for the next two to 6 years. Your PI's role is to help you maintain a high level of accuracy, integrity, and productivity in your research. That research—performed, usually, in the PI's lab—should teach you to think critically about data, communicate effectively through scientific writing, and design and carry out definitive experiments, all while interacting with your PI.
At a bare minimum, your PI needs to provide adequate lab space and resources. She may also provide the concept or idea for your work; a few students generate their own research idea within the broad context the PI has established. The PI may provide a stipend, although many graduate students are supported by fellowships or teaching assistantships. Your PI should always treat you with respect as they teach and help you maintain high scientific standards, ethics, and scientific integrity. You have a right to expect all this, and if your PI isn't providing it, you should leave and find a new one.
For students determined to go into academia, the PI may wear an additional hat. She has been down that path and can provide valuable career advice, feedback, and networking contacts. However, it's up to you to initiate that conversation, seek information, generate opportunities, and maintain the contacts she creates for you. Some PIs will help, but never forget that ultimately it's up to you to get what you need.
Most likely, your PI will have far less to offer you if you've decided to pursue a career outside her areas of expertise. These days there are wonderful opportunities in nontraditional areas, including patent law, science journalism, and forensics—or even teaching undergraduates on a campus where research is not required. Lacking expertise and experience in these areas, your PI may not have good advice to offer you. If that is so, you need to find advice elsewhere.
The Informal Scientific Adviser hat. This hat is typically worn by a wide range of people. These people interact with you scientifically but do not have direct management responsibility for you or your science. Your informal advisers question, challenge, and guide you in new intellectual directions, which may, or may not, be directly related to your research project. Thus, their recommendations (take this class, consider that collaboration) may truly benefit you, but they may not be consistent with your PI's expectations.
Informal scientific advisers may be peers, classmates, older students—even younger students who know less than you know but ask "why" and expect a good explanation. Your committee members are certainly scientific advisers, as are others in your department or across campus who serve as intellectual and material resources.
The Career Adviser hat. The career adviser works with you to ensure that you do things now that position you well for what happens postdegree. He helps you find additional classes to take, even if not directly related to your current research focus. He identifies internships you should apply for, initiates networking connections related to your career interests, and provides alternative career scenarios. The career adviser asks, "What do you want to do after this?" He listens closely, then helps you realize your plans.
The Mentor hat. Mentorship is a personal relationship in a professional context. Your mentor is your go-to person for emotional support, conflict resolution, and venting. The person wearing this hat is your sounding board, offering advice and alternative suggestions about whatever topic you need to talk about. Mentors may advocate for you on a level that none of the other "hats" can or will—because it is personal. Your mentor need not be completely enlightened about your scientific topic, and could even be a peer or a friend. What distinguishes a mentor from an adviser is deep concern for your long-term (and short-term) wellbeing.
Very often, the person wearing the mentor hat isn't the same as the person wearing the PI hat, because students often feel uncomfortable being emotional or honest with their bosses, or fear disappointing them. Likewise, some PIs are not comfortable becoming emotionally involved with students.
A mentor needs to be compassionate, sympathetic, and objective. A good mentor offers advice, but recognizes when a student is not ready to accept it. A mentorship relationship requires an emotional bond, which is why mentors usually cannot be assigned. But, once established, the bonds between a mentor and a protégé may last years. It is difficult to define what makes a good mentor; it is unique to each mentor-mentee pair.
All these relationships are critical to you, but your PI is probably comfortable wearing just one hat, or possibly two. While every PI-student relationship is different, you should always join a PI's research team with some minimal expectations about what the PI should provide; expect the minimum, but don't expect more. Once you've become comfortable in your new lab, work to build a strong professional relationship with your PI. Remember that you need to open, and then maintain, the lines of communication. Only then can you figure out how much more you can realistically expect from your PI.
As your career develops, you probably will encounter many individuals wearing different combinations of the hats above. Think about the people around you and figure out what roles they can play. Some will welcome the opportunity to work more closely with you; others will decline the offer. Don’t take it personally if they don’t want to wear the hat you choose for them. If you can't find what you need within your circle of acquaintances go out and meet new people.
Where do these hat wearers come from? Some are people you already know. Your department will assign some. Others come with the research project you select. Still, others work in a career office or elsewhere on campus. Assembling your support team is, by necessity, an active, self-driven process. You need to initiate the invitations! So, chat with people over coffee, test tube racks, computer keyboards, or late night pizza. Be as tenacious about identifying, maintaining, and expanding your support system as you are about your science and your career, because they are deeply entwined.
Wishing you all the best,
P.S. Let’s meet over coffee and chat.