On my role/effectiveness as a mentor

Graduate students are one of the best, and one of the most difficult aspects of my job. I constantly wonder if I’m doing it right. I worry because I care about the students. I care about whether they are learning and growing as scientists, and I care about them as human beings. I also care about their scientific output. In fact, as a lab-based scientist, I am dependent on the work that they do.

There are a two main flavors of my worry. First, Am I doing enough for their scientific development? Second, am I falling into the trope of the over-demanding pre-tenure faculty?

The first of these generally has two main steps transient* frustration with a student triggers a longer spiral of second guessing myself as a mentor.

The frustrations are usually normal** day-to-day things. Mistakes, failure to take notes of discussions, failure to locate notes from discussions, needing to repeat instructions that should not need to be explained again****, slowness of writing, oversharing about personal issues, failure to talk to me about research-related questions, and lack of keeping up with the literature, for example.

But then I start wondering: Is there something about what I am doing that could fix some of these problems? Am I giving my students too much room? Or am I micromanaging? Am I applying too much pressure? Not enough pressure? Is it contradictory if I am working on something up to a deadline, but demand they have drafts to me early?

Obvious frustration of a student can also trigger my second guessing – someone upset after feedback on their writing, or even a twitter discussion of unrelated trainees frustrated with their PI over feedback on a draft of a paper. Am I that PI? Did I not explain why changes need to be made?

I’m not alone in this – either the frustrations or the second guessing. And as of writing this, I don’t have good solutions*****. I also know that many of the things that frustrate me is caused by something that is a source of anxiety for students.

Writing? Terrifying. Talking to your PI about something in lab that you feel like you should know? Nerve wracking. Making a mistake on a critical experiment? Horrifying.

But these are exactly the same things that trigger my own concerns about the science that happen in the lab. I need to get papers out, so someone that constantly misses deadlines for getting their work written up is a real issue. And if they won’t talk to me about it, I don’t know whether it’s anxiety, if there is something I could help with, or if they are working on it at all. But what is the best way to respond to this? Should I be more demanding about deadlines and words on a page? Should I acknowledge that teaching and classes and having a life also require their time, or should I push for everything to be done all at once^. I could request a set number of words per day, but I’d usually prefer well thought out words, thoughtfully strung together than 500 words of mind dump^^^.

A major mistake on an important experiment – especially one that we have talked through what feels like a thousand times^^ – will always make my stomach drop. It’s a crucial part of learning, but it also slows down their experimental output. Should I be worried about the attention to detail from this person? Their notes? Or only worry if it happens again. Should I demand they work around the clock to redo the experiment? Or be satisfied with talking through the problem to make sure they have learned from their mistakes. Or should I just acknowledge and let it drop, assuming mistakes happen and redoing a long experiment won’t kill them, me or my research program?

I’m slowly finding my own way through some of these issues, trying to find a balance between getting the work done efficiently, and remembering that everyone has lives outside the lab. So far, the most important thing for me is making sure everyone is talking to me about their research, and their struggles with balancing the various parts of their job.

I still haven’t quite worked out how not to worry about my role in my students’ scientific development, or how to know if I’m doing too much of something or too little. 

* I rant to friends outside academia.
** I can think of examples where I was guilty of some*** of these myself.
*** most
**** Experimental designs should be in your lab notebook. In detail. Every single experiment.
***** Maybe tomorrow.
^ Something i’ve not learned to do.
^^ See also: failure to write/find notes on discussions.
^^^ One solution is to write the paper without the student. I’m not at all okay with this option. Writing is a hugely important skill for students to learn.


26 thoughts on “On my role/effectiveness as a mentor

  1. Pingback: On my role/effectiveness as a mentor | Biólogo31 www.wwf.org.br/

  2. Yes to all of this! Managing trainees is by far the most challenging part of my job as a faculty member. It is more difficult than it needs to be due to the fact that we don’t receive any targeted training as PIs on how to manage people. A few good resources are the books “At the Helm” by Kathy Baker and “Lab Dynamics” which I talk about in this blog post: https://aemcdonald.wordpress.com/2014/06/17/book-review-lab-dynamics-management-skills-for-scientists/

  3. I think its important to remember that everyone is different in terms of motivation and what they need and the best thing is to try to communicate openly for both the good and bad. I think the hardest part I have with respect to trainees is that it is hard to know whether things are “working well” in the short term. It takes years, maybe decades to know if your impact on a junior trainee was optimal, and that might be completely unrelated to progress on papers/projects they are working on in the lab.

    I try to separate “development” from “productivity” when I think about my trainees but it is hard to keep these things separate. I would guess its a lot easier with perspective to look back and see “thats what that person needed at that time” but in the moment its really hard to know. I would guess (like with most new PI things) as you get more experience, you overthink it less, get more confidence and go with your gut.

  4. thanks for sharing this – as a grad student, it’s helpful to get perspective from the other side! In big/R1 labs, postdocs are often a great go-between for grad students, as grads often feel they are more approachable (b/c less of that terror you mention) and often more “in the weeds” with methods and analyses (and the missteps involved to get them right). Do you have postdocs?

    Daily writing deadlines from students sounds terrible and terrifying for grads – potentially trying to keep them writing, but possibly something they’ll just feel paralyzed by and balk at. Conversely though, I’ve been frustrated (and talked with other frustrated grads) when PIs *don’t* give pointed feedback, especially when they’re disappointed w/ their grads — it’s worse to know they’re not happy or hear about it from a different PI (has happened to me, the worst) than to just have the difficult conversation.

    I think all grads want PIs that care about them growing as individuals and scholars! Prefacing hard conversations with that hopefully with make them easier to swallow (at least if the grads are being mature and professional about it).

  5. I’ve had many mentoring roles throughout my career- some in academia, some out. Over 3+ decades I’ve evolved & transformed in my approaches to mentoring. I can with clarity recall where you seem to be in the process, as I was once there too. Questioning your approaches is a good thing- but casting a pall of doubt over yourself is not (I’m not saying you have, BTW.)

    I’ve gone from being very hands-on, to very hands-off, to disciplinarian and now- to a trusted and valued comrade in my mentoring. I’m not certain of how I arrived here, other than it’s more than likely a result of experience- decades of experience. At some point I figured it out, and I believe everyone must do that for themselves. I don’t believe I or anyone else can tell you how to be a good mentor- you just have to figure it out on your own, and it will take awhile.

    I guess what I am getting at is the age-old adage that “Grandparents make better parents than do parents.” Which is just another way of saying you have to go round the block several times before you figure it out for yourself. I would say just be patient with yourself. Let the process evolve, knowing one day you will arrive at what you consider to be the best approach to mentoring.

    For myself, the following are what have worked incredibly well for me (but likely would not for everyone else): a) I carefully select students/ trainees. I look for the subtle things- like, does the person hold doors open for others and go out of their way to help someone having a bad day; b) when it comes to training, I work alongside the person, for as long as it takes for them to learn a particular task- and then, I return periodically and continue to work along side them; c) I am myself- i.e., just a person, not any better nor any worse than any of my students or trainees; d) I openly share my life experiences- good & bad; e) I am not afraid to show emotion- smiles, laughter, frowns and tears; and f) I am not only a mentor, I am a comrade. Just as my students learn from me, I learn from them, and I acknowledge openly when they have expanded my horizons.

    • I like this approach and have taken it myself (tailoring the mentoring style to the mentee). I do worry, though, that by sharing emotion and life experiences, women mentors are more likely to fall into a pattern where mentees start to see them as a friend rather than a mentor (or see them as a less serious scientist), and then the mentee gets upset when the mentor has to get tough or correct mistakes. As a young-ish (or young-looking) woman, it can be hard to establish the appropriate amount of authority in a mentoring/supervisory role, especially as a new PI. I am very careful to be warm and collegial to my students, but to make firm lines between supervisor and friend.

      I remember in grad school, I was having a difficult semester and my advisor, who I had started to see as a friend, said something like, “I know that things are hard for you, but you need to start producing.” She said it nicely, but the message was firm–I care about you as a person, but I also care about your career, and your career cannot advance given your current trajectory. It was a wake-up call that her understanding would only go so far, and that I had to deal with my own issues but still be productive, just like in any other job.

    • Particularly (c) above. Most particularly, (c). All you young mentors out there, as long as you are trying and observing and caring, then don’t be too hard on yourselves.

    • My postdoc mentor had a slightly different take on this same point. When I started my faculty position, he told me that your first grad students are like beautiful tropical fish in a new fish tank … and that you will probably kill a few before you get the balance right. Not that any of us are trying to, just that experience helps 🙂

      • I LOVE this. Thank you.
        (This also highlights an earlier commenter that mentioned the importance of students having multiple mentors)

  6. Also a new PI here, working with my own trainee for the first time, and have encountered many if not all of the same challenges. I’ve visited her field site with her, done some basic training in the lab, and have regular editing sessions for her writing, where we sit and go through corrections offered by her committee members and what she can do to fix each one. I know that it’s possible in the future, when I have multiple trainees, that I won’t have time for all of this, but I want to work as much as I can with each one as they come on board.

  7. Advisors have a de-facto conflict of interest when it comes to mentoring students. You can’t be your students’ only mentor, because you have a vested interest in their productivity, and sometimes that conflicts with your interest in their development. So keep on keepin’ on, but do your best to make sure they have other mentors in their lives, even peers, who they can talk to for additional perspectives on their personal goals and scholarly progress. It takes a village to raise a graduate student!

    • I read it differently – I read it as the author was reflecting on the whole broad picture; the whole package of interactions involving talking, showing, doing, discussing, role-modelling, whatever-ing. So that would include what the author does. But yes, if your interpretation is correct then I agree that “telling” is never enough – for anyone whether they be kids or adult partners or first-year students or clients or colleagues … etc.

  8. Thank you for sharing this — I’ve been having a lot of problems with my supervisors recently, mainly (as near as I can tell) from a lack of communication between us, and it’s nice to hear the perspective from the other side.

    First and foremost, I’m sorry that mentoring students is causing so much anxiety!

    I’m particularly interested in your mentioning oversharing of personal issues? I’m trying to balance a PhD with a set of pretty severe medical difficulties, and, especially early in my diagnosis, being able to turn to my supervisor for some level of logistical advice (she’s a citizen of the country we live in, I’m not, and it’s a pretty complicated medical system) and emotional support (I essentially never interact with anyone over the age of 30, and turns out life perspective is a really valuable thing) was really helpful. But was it oversharing? Probably? Has this damaged our relationship? I really don’t know.

    • First of all good luck with balancing your PhD and medical stuff. That’s hard, and I’m glad you have support from your supervisor.

      What constitutes oversharing depends a lot on the relationship, and changes a lot over time. So I can’t comment on whether you are doing it, but my sense is not. If you’re talking about something serious and interacting and asking questions, it doesn’t seem like overshare, it sounds like a supportive relationship.
      The true overshare is very rare, involves something like walking in, sitting and telling a long story of all the drama/drinking that happened over the weekend.

  9. Thanks for writing this – completely echoes my own thoughts and concerns at the moment! I’ve just written up a set of guidelines I’m planning to discuss with new and current students that I hope straddle the boundary between showing I care a lot about their development and also showing I have high expectations. I know guidelines can only go so far – but I realised I was getting frustrated with students for not meeting expectations I had that I assumed were too obvious to tell them, which wasn’t fair. I’m also hoping it will be something I can refer back to when things aren’t going well. I agree with the commenter who mentioned the difficulty younerg women face in being treated as a friend rather than a boss, and I think younger men can fall into that trap too (we all still want to have fun, right?). No real answers yet, but definitely an issue that hits close to home!

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  11. IMHO, the behaviors and frustrations that you list suggest that you may need to start focusing on addressing your own pre-tenure stressors. The best mentors I’ve worked with know that it is not my job to make their careers–it’s theirs. So if you’re relying on students to get you tenure, you’re gonna have a bad time. I understand that students are a very important part of the process, but for example, if there are papers you need to get out for tenure, YOU should be writing them, not your graduate students. Period. There should be no waiting on something that is important to YOUR promotion. People come into graduate school with different goals and backgrounds and you work should be to foster their own personal academic and intellectual development, not to force them into doing the work at a pace you want for YOUR career success. Your goals cannot be to make others do something. They cannot be for the graduate students to x and for the university to grant you tenure–goals must be things you can control and you cannot *really* control the behavior of others. I strongly suggests you look into the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. They have a professor boot camp that I think might help you cope with the frustrations you have with others that are born out of your own anxieties about your pre-tenure case.

    • The way papers are written depends largely on field. In my field – and many of the lab based sciences – the work that happens in the lab by students and postdocs is conducted in discussion with the PI (me) and gets written up in papers with author lists that include them as first authors and the senior PI as last author. For those of us with substantial teaching loads, much of the actual benchwork that happens in the lab is by trainees, and there is absolutely a necessity for them to learn to write their own papers (and grants). I strongly believe that this is most effective for them to learn by going through the process of writing and revising their own work. I do agree that I cannot wait forever for them to write their papers, and as such I have a pretty heavy hand in pushing them through the process. The question is this: where is the balance between the pedagogy and giving them ownership in their projects and at what point does/should a PI just take over (and yes – there are points where that is appropriate).

      My assessment of my dependence on students (and other trainees in the lab) for my productivity is not from hyperbole or anxiety, it is how this enterprise works (yes, this is problematic in its own ways, but that is a discussion for another day). It is also the case that I am dependent on my ability to design projects that are doable, to teach and support students in learning how to do the experiments and design their own, and so on.

      I appreciate your concern for my anxieties and my tenure case. However, as you can see from many other comments here, these are normal issues, concerns, and frustrations that arise as part of managing students and managing a lab. The discussion of such issues is a primary reason for writing this blog.

      I do agree that the NCFDD Faculty Bootcamp is fantastic.
      If anyone else would like more information on this program, please see http://www.facultydiversity.org/?FSProgramDescription or contact me (@scitrigrrl or natontherun at gmail dot com) and I’d be happy to give more information.

      • I agree that it’s field-specific with authorship and writing — but more importantly, SciTriGrrl would be a TERRIBLE mentor for graduate students by writing up their work for them. And especially if they are trainees (i.e. paid by the grants), they have responsibilities to follow through on their paid work on a fair timeline.

        • Agree…it is part of the learning process for grad students and post docs, therefore part of the duties of the mentor to guide them in writing up their stuff so that they can progress in their careers too. The processes imvolve all, almost like an organism, it usually isn’t just oneperson needing the publications, bit it is win win win when it works out….d.

  12. About writing manuscripts, it is usually a daunting task for the students and they do not know where to start. They are expected to know how to write, they assume they know how to write, but they simply do not.
    Students and mentors need to regard manuscript writing just as learning any other task in the lab: that it will take significant time and effort, and the mentor’s guidance to get it right. If we just let them struggle on their own, they get frustrated even paralyzed.
    I am not sure what percentage of students take scientific writing classes at grad school, but I have not heard anyone say what they learned helped when actually writing a manuscript! I am also yet to find a single all-comprehensive resource (I am not even sure if it is possible to have one), but rather than saying “go write!” we need to first say “go read!” at least a few good guides,* then sit down with them, plan the manuscript together, make an outline, etc — even before starting to write the first sentence of the first draft.

    *Several well-written manuscripts that are already published

    • “If we just let them struggle on their own, they get frustrated even paralyzed.” This is so true. And IME is true during the writing process. I’ve learned to ask SPECIFICALLY “what are you struggling with” and “what are you stuck on” because I find students won’t volunteer this on their own, but asking about it helps to normalize this paralysis as a part of writing that can be addressed.

      These are fantastic resources. American Psychological Association publish writing guides that are also excellent for manuscript writing across scientific disciplines.

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