Experimental Error banner

Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Scientists aren’t trained to mentor. That’s a problem

Throughout most of grad school, I was impressed by how thoroughly unimportant I was to the people running the labs I worked in. I didn’t expect to have best-buds-on-a-road-trip relationships with my advisers, but I didn’t realize I’d pretty much be thought of as Training Grant Expenditure Number Eight. Day one in a lab usually felt like this:

ME: My mind is open; I am yours to educate! Illuminate the corridors of scientific wonder, and be my true guide as you train me in your ways.

MY ADVISER: Here’s a stack of journal articles. See you in a week.

Yet that’s what an adviser is, at least etymologically: someone who provides advice. Not guidance, not teaching, just … advice.

In other words, we sometimes draw a false equivalence between research advisers and mentors. And while many advisers are excellent mentors, it’s not exactly a prerequisite for running a lab.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Back in the days when traveling and audiences both existed, I gave the keynote address at an event for HSI STEM Impact, a program for undergraduate science students at Texas State University. It’s a pretty remarkable program: Not only does it support students navigating their first experience working in a lab, but it also includes mandatory mentorship training for the professors who run those labs.

Why is this remarkable? Because most professors receive exactly zero minutes of mentorship training—and at most universities, that’s just kind of the end of the story. Your principal investigator (PI) doesn’t know what to do with you? Yeah, they’re like that sometimes.

But not at Texas State. Looking around the lecture hall, I saw undergrads eager to participate in research, and I saw professors who were happy to facilitate that research. But most importantly, I saw a program, funded and sanctioned and promoted by the university, that gave the green light to professors to participate. It told the professors, “The university wants you to be mentors—and we’ll provide the support to help you do it well.”

Programs like this, offering various types of mentorship training, exist at other institutions, too—but still, they’re hardly the norm. Why don’t more schools and programs provide training for faculty to be better mentors? Why don’t they prioritize carving out time for this sort of activity? Why do they just kind of throw everyone to the wolves and see what happens?

You’d think graduate programs would be trying to outdo one another with the quality of the mentorship they offer. But then you’d be forgetting that the lifeblood of a science program isn’t happy trainees—it’s grants. Professors can even be told that their job is less secure because they’ve invested too much time and energy working with students, and it’s detracting from their primary role as grant-getters. After all, grant money is a tangible and necessary fuel for university science departments, while mentorship can neither be quantified nor spent on a shiny new endowed provost.

“Professor Diligent, don’t get us wrong,” an administrator will say. “We appreciate that you’ve worked hard to ensure your students have a productive and enjoyable experience training in your lab. But unless one of those students wants to give you $3 million, you should really refocus your efforts. Does … one of those students want to give you $3 million?”

Not only are the incentives for good mentoring misaligned, but some professors are actively disinterested in mentoring students, focusing more on research and relegating the day-to-day hand-holding to whichever postdoc draws the short straw. Others would love to be good mentors but don’t exactly know how—and don’t have easy access to training opportunities that would help.

The whole situation might not be so embarrassing if universities didn’t tout the opportunities for students to work with top-notch researchers so strongly: “Train with our world-class professors! Rub elbows with greatness! Latch onto a future Nobel laureate, open wide, and catch the crumbs!” Then you join a lab, and the trainer to whom you’re apprenticed for the next five to *cough cough* years has neither the desire nor the ability to support trainees. Oops!

This status quo has been accepted for far too long. For the sake of the next generation of students (and, to the extent that well-mentored researchers produce better research, for the sake of the advisers, too) it’s time for a change. It’s time we made science mentorship training more commonplace, or even—dare I say it—mandatory.

Before you professors get your mortarboards in a twist, I hear you. I know you don’t have time for yet another university-mandated obligation. More importantly, I understand that a lot of these training sessions, especially the university-mandated ones, are vague clouds of word fluff. Believe me, I’ve been trapped in plenty of uninformative PowerPoint-based discourses about “engagement” or “implementing deliverables” or “why it was wrong to say that about the dean when you thought you were on mute.”

But that’s not a reason to jettison the whole idea. Not all university-mandated training is bad; only bad university-mandated training is bad. With a little time and effort, surely administrators can figure out how to offer trainings that will benefit everyone. (Well, almost everyone—training probably won’t reform those legitimately horrible advisers that make their trainees’ lives nightmares, but let’s at least start somewhere.)

Simply put, any PI who holds students’ fates in their hands should receive training in mentorship. It may take a village to raise a child (and after 5 months quarantined at home with my kids, I’d be happy to send them to wherever that village is). But it takes a scientist to train a scientist. And it takes a university to officially, without the wink-wink-but-seriously-go-get-grant-money, encourage and train professors to do so. Even if it isn’t the most important aspect of their job to them, for the students working under them, it’s everything.

Read more Experimental Error stories