Needed: Flexible Mentors in Science

Needed: Flexible Mentors in Science

This post originally appeared on the GCC Carpe Careers blog published on the Inside Higher Ed website on May 1, 2017. Re-posting with permission from Inside Higher Ed.

Adriana Bankston provides advice for how research scientists can positively influence the personal and professional development of the trainees who work in their labs.

I’ve written a lot of articles about what junior scientists can do to navigate their own career transitions, but I would now like to urge mentors to help and support them in those endeavors. In a recent Open Forum discussion on graduate education at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, it became clear that research faculty are key to the future of science. They have the single most important influence on a trainee’s personal and professional development.

Recognizing the needs of your trainees, and how they may differ depending on each person’s goals, is crucial to ensuring success — both during training and later in your trainees’ lives. Below, I would like to offer some specific advice on being a flexible mentor in science today.

Train the trainees. This point seems obvious, yet it is often overlooked, given that the culture of academe is based on the number of high-impact publications in which one’s research is published. Mentors thus rightly demand this from trainees so that they can stay afloat in science today. But let’s not forget that before they can publish something of value from your lab, trainees first need to be trained in how to perform high-quality research. Remember that the ability of your trainees to go out into the world and do great things can be a reflection of your mentoring. Also if you establish your reputation as being a coveted mentor, more people will want to join your lab later on.

Value individual contributions. Trainees often have the tendency to compare themselves to those around them in terms of the number of hours they work, whether their experiments worked that day, how much they published that year and the like. But the fact that each person is different and has contributed something valuable to your lab within a particular week is something to celebrate. It doesn’t have to be a high-impact paper — it can be just overcoming an obstacle they’ve struggled with for a while.

Consider varied interests. Realize that not all of your trainees may desire to go into academe. Take time to get to know them when they enter your lab and to find out what their career goals are. And after they join your lab, don’t forget about them. Meet with them every week, and always keep your door open so they feel that you are available. Ask them periodically how they are doing, whether they are happy in the lab and whether their personal and professional interests and goals have changed. All of these factors can have an impact on how they do in the lab.

Praise different accomplishments. From my experience, what is valuable to one person does not necessarily mean anything to another. It depends on their goals, as well, which is why knowing your trainees well can help you figure out how to best help them accomplish those goals. If someone wants to be a tenure-track professor, praise them for that high-impact publication which they’ve been working toward. If they want to be a teacher and just gave a good lecture to students, make sure to let them know. Or if they want to enter an entirely different career field, take time to find out what that is and how you might help them.

Be a mentor, not just a boss. Be the type of mentor whom a trainee feels comfortable talking to, even if you don’t know much about their chosen career path. Take time to listen to what they are telling you every week, and adjust your mentoring style accordingly. Remember that mentoring someone in your lab will require you to give them a great deal of personal attention, so don’t take on too many people if you can’t mentor them. Also, recognize that people in your lab are likely to stay for several years, and during this time, their personal and professional interests may change. Be open and flexible in your training, especially if they decide to change career goals while in your lab.

Encourage professional development. Don’t forget that, for anyone training for a particular career path (be it academe or not), developing and growing professionally is important. Depending on their interests, encourage them to attend seminars, symposia and other events in which they can cultivate the many types of skills they will need to succeed — both in your lab and later in life. Things like time management, managing stress, delegating tasks and being dependable and accountable are qualities that will help them, no matter what they do. And if they are interested in other career paths, encourage them to talk to people who are in those jobs, help them find outside opportunities to get experience in those fields, and encourage them in whatever their career goals may be.

Reward long-term success. Think about the broader picture and realize that someone’s success is not just based on immediate accomplishments. This is especially important when you are writing letters of recommendation for your trainees. Think ahead about what kinds of things you need to teach them so that they are able to accrue the qualities and experiences they need over time. One measure of long-term success may be whether trainees followed their dream career paths at the end of spending several years in your lab. Or if the training and career preparation that you and your institution provided helped prepare them to benefit society.

Treat people fairly. A mentor who is often stressed out about daily life as a principal investigator may find it easier to rely on specific people who tend to become the favorites in the lab. That can create a detrimental environment for other people in the lab, who may start to feel left out or less worthy of your attention. Practically speaking, that can be reflected in authorship, for example, where the favorite may be the first author on a paper just because they were able to get more attention and guidance from the mentor in terms of their contributions to a particular project. But remember that everyone deserves the same level of attention from you — and while you might rely more heavily on some trainees (perhaps due to being more experienced), be sure to treat everyone in your lab fairly and acknowledge their individual contributions.

Establish criteria for rewards. I’ll use authorship as an example again here. For research papers that have a large number of authors, listing specific tasks each person did for a particular project can help you decide authorship order. Also, if you list their contributions at the end of the paper, it will make them feel more valued. Acknowledging and rewarding every contribution is key to having a successful trainee, as is explaining your rationale for it — trainees are much more likely to accept your decisions if you explain the reasons behind them.

Value the people in your lab. Success propagates itself. Once you make someone feel valued, they are likely to ask for more things to do. If they respect you and how you treat them, they will be more willing to help and contribute to the mission of the lab. You will then be able to depend on them, especially in times of need — for example, during a late-night experiment, a weekend meeting to talk about a paper in preparation and so forth. These should be rare events, but you will be able to count on them if needed. Build your lab on people you trust and who trust in your abilities to lead them.

Respect personal time. It’s easy in science to get carried away and want to work all the time, but remember that your trainees have a life outside academe. So don’t send them a paper one night, saying you need it tomorrow. Be aware of their personal time and their need to have time away from the lab. If you need something from them with a quick turnaround, give them enough notice and time to get it done properly. Also, recognize that they don’t always have to agree; they may have prior plans, especially if you are asking for something over the weekend. In that case, also be prepared to ask someone else to complete that particular task.

Promote change in science. As a mentor training the next generation of scientists, think about the type of person you want each of your trainees to become. They are, of course, different people, but the time they spend in your lab can significantly influence their future. They will watch your behavior on a daily basis and examine how you interact with everyone else in the lab, your family and others. Recognize the responsibility you have to train them to become people you would be proud of saying came from your lab. Your success as a mentor may be measured by teaching each person new things, helping them grow personally and professionally, and ultimately changing their lives in positive ways.

Create whole scientists. I urge you, as someone with a lot of influence on other people and the future of science, to think about the bigger picture. Train scientists for what they want to become (and not what you want them to be), and teach them to be good people and responsible citizens so that they may use what they learned from you to make a positive impact on society. Remember that productivity at the bench is not everything. Strive to create “whole scientists” who will make you proud down the road and will be happy in their own future endeavors.

Adriana Bankston is a policy activist at the nonprofit organization Future of Research and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium — an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

1 Comment

  1. I could not agree more on that these are the traits of a good mentor.
    The problem, however, is that ‘bosses’ have few external incentives nowadays to behave this way, even if they feel so inclined.

    The incentives should change. For instance, one could include, as a parameter in University rankings, the professional success of graduate students and postdocs (in or out of academia) 6 months after graduating/leaving employment.


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