How should we mentor junior scientists? Reflections from a Twitter chat

How should we mentor junior scientists? Reflections from a Twitter chat

This is a guest post by Future of Research board member, Adriana Bankston.


Mentoring junior scientists is one of the most important aspects of academia. Effective mentoring can help young, inexperienced scientists develop into confident, independent and valuable contributors to science and society. Typically, we think of mentors as being faculty members in an academic setting. They are in a position to shape how trainees develop in academia, which is a great responsibility. To a large extent, therefore, culture change begins with the faculty.


On the other hand, not all faculty are effective mentors. In an academic culture dominated by hypercompetition, mentoring might be less emphasized as compared to publication. However, producing trained scientists should be the goal of academia, which is why mentoring is critical to the entire enterprise.


Providing effective mentoring to graduate students and postdocs typically requires a large amount of time and effort, constructive feedback, and a well-defined long-term strategy. It also takes flexibility and adaptability to the needs and goals of the mentee, which is sometimes overshadowed the needs of faculty.


Also, anyone can be a mentor – not just the faculty. Graduate students often mentor undergraduates for an entire summer or a semester in the lab, and postdocs can teach graduate students new concepts and valuable research practices within the lab. Therefore, all of these efforts count as mentoring, and should be properly incentivized and rewarded in academia.


Some of the ideas outlined above, as well as many other great ideas on the topic of mentoring, have emerged during a productive and informative Twitter chat discussion. The event was co-hosted by Future of Research and the Union of Concerned Scientists on September 12, 2017, using the hashtag #MentoringFutureSci. Below are some important points summarizing the chat. Please see the storify for more details on specific points.


Definitions of a mentor. A mentor is a colleague, someone who trains you, inspires you, encourages you to reach your potential, listens to you, gives you advice based on your own needs and goals (and not theirs) and helps you identify strengths and weaknesses as related to those goals.


Types of mentoring. There is a big difference between a boss and a mentor, and not all supervisors are good mentors. Choosing a supervisor who is also a good mentor is key for graduate students and postdocs. Peer mentoring is also a valuable practice for trainees to engage in. Finally, having multiple mentors (sometimes from outside your institution) can enormously enhance training and professional development for graduate students and postdocs.


Benefits of mentoring. Two great, long-term benefits of mentoring are training graduate students and postdocs for the future (not just for today), as well as improved diversity and inclusion within academia. In addition, good mentoring can also save a faculty member time in the long run, and can increase the overall lab productivity and quality of research results. Despite these benefits, some faculty choose to invest less time in mentoring than in writing their publications.


Barriers to improving mentoring. Overwhelmingly, the major barrier to changing the mentoring system is the lack of incentives, rewards and recognition for good mentoring. In addition, there is also a lack of consequences for bad mentoring. And while institutions should provide useful mentoring resources, faculty members still need to be willing to engage in good mentoring. Incorporating mentoring in promotion and tenure decisions may encourage faculty members to add more emphasis to this aspect of their job. However, many more ways to encourage faculty to WANT to mentor their trainees should be brainstormed.


Mentoring the mentors. Not all faculty members may agree with the idea that they also need to be mentored. But the reality is that faculty members aren’t always prepared for this role when they first start running their own labs, therefore providing them with ways to learn management and leadership skills (among others) would be very beneficial. Two ideas that might be helpful for “mentoring the mentors” are having mentoring circles, and striving to establish a mentoring culture within the lab. Giving graduate students and postdocs the opportunity to mentor each other is also very important, and more resources are needed in this regard.


Helping trainees identify a good mentor. Trainees often don’t know how to find a good mentor whose lab they want to join. “Flashy science” should not be the criteria by which they choose their lab, although this is a major component of this decision in many cases. Helping them decide how to choose a lab by emphasizing the importance of the “lab fit” and whether that particular mentoring style fits them, are critical to their success and happiness both at the bench and beyond.


Diversity and equality in mentoring. It was evident from the discussion that there is less pressure on men to be good mentors, and this needs to change in academia. Mentoring should not be gender dependent, or dependent on anything else other than your own ability to perform this task. And yet, faculty/staff of color and women still do a disproportionate amount of mentoring compared to white men. Additional efforts are needed towards more diversity and equality in academia with respect to faculty mentor roles.


Possible solutions to improve mentoring. One possible solution is to obtain references on mentors from mentees themselves, which is valuable particularly if they are more comfortable stating their opinions in writing. Encouraging trainees to practice mentoring in the lab, as well as having junior faculty interact more with the senior faculty are important as well. Other ideas are creating sustainable mentoring programs, holding short talks about mentoring at conferences, and in general encouraging culturally response mentoring in academia.


What organizations can do to promote mentoring. Some ways in which various stakeholders (scientific societies, faculty members, and institutions in general) can contribute to improving mentoring in academia are by creating better incentives, rewards and metrics for good mentorship. All of these aspects are challenging but need to be addressed in order for culture change to be possible in academia. Perhaps more tangible goals would be starting a group mentoring program, and giving more mentoring awards, both of which may enable faculty members to think more about how to improve their own mentoring practices. Devising strategies and resources necessary for trainees to identify good mentors is also a critical, practical aspect of improving the academic environment.  


How to incentivize and reward mentoring. Particular advice for addressing this challenging problem is to find mentees that don’t look like you, also a helpful practice for improving diversity. Thinking about culture change from the point of view of mentees and having them nominate mentors for awards (which already happens at a number of universities) is another very powerful way for giving them a voice in changing the culture. At the institutional level, connecting mentorship to grant funding support would be critical for any type of broader change. Finally, although not heavily emphasized, thinking about how to be a good mentee is also important for an improved academic culture in general.


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