Since the dawn of the human age, mentorship was ever present and served as the basis for knowledge transfer and technology progression. Today, in over thousands of labs all over the world, professional PhDs supervise undergrad and graduate students, serving as the head of our current scientific knowledge and expanding it’s boundaries on a daily basis. However, it’s clear that not everyone is cut out for mentorship or that some needs refinement and improvement of their mentorship capabilities. In the following posts I will discuss the characteristics that make an accomplished mentor in research and how you, the student, should work with your PI.
Motivation or Why Mentorship is a Smart Investment
The very basic requirement of any prospective mentor is motivation and patience to guide students. While it is a trivial requirement, some PI reach their new and shining lab with the aim of publishing high and far, to reach fame and acknowledgement, and to secure their tenure track ASAP with less interest in investing time and energy into their student’s education. With such a view, these PI act as employers rather than mentors. This is of course a mistake because a well trained and mentored student will be both confident and autonomous at the bench and will be less of a burden on the lab mates and the PI. In addition, a well educated student that secures a postdoc position will increase the reputation of the former lab, especially if he/she had a positive experience due to a high level of mentorship. Thus, PI mentorship is an important aspect that PIs will have to focus on as they guide their students disregarding their own interests.
Characteristics of a Good Mentor in Research
Here are some of the most important characteristics of a good mentor:
- Listen – you should listen and be open minded to your student’s questions and suggestions. It is a common knowledge that the best source of original ideas come from naïve practitioners.
- Open door – Be accessible and encourage questions, even the most “stupid” ones.
- Encourage self-sufficiency – After a period of close attention, let your students cope with their experimentation and their outcomes by themselves. Let them think before giving them the (possible) answers.
- Focus – Keep your students focused on the target(s) that lay ahead, short and long term.
- Direct, don’t navigate – Suggest possible experimentation paths but don’t push or micromanage your students. Self-sufficiency means the capability to decide on a certain action/experimentation.
- Criticize & praise accordingly – Give practical and effective criticism as well as praise when appropriate. Correct feedback is a basic learning tool, so use it wisely!
- Maintain composure & optimism – Part of being a mentor is knowing how to handle difficult or problematic situations and do it with composure. Such behavior will serve to plant both confidence and admiration in your students.
- Care – Remind yourself how it was when you were doing your first steps in the lab. Have empathy and patience with your students and take care of them for their success is also your success!
However, as a mentor you are NOT expected to be:
- A friend of your student. Keep your relationship at a professional level.
- Don't do the student’s work.
- To have complete knowledge about every aspect of the lab’s topics or procedures. Don’t hesitate to say “I don’t know, why don’t you check it out online or in the library?” Teach the student to use various resources to answer their questions/queries. Don’t forget that this capability is an essential part of being an independent researcher.
How can BioKM can improve the mentorship process?
- Use the Calendar module to assign tasks and demonstrate your mentee how to wisely plan ahead experiments and reserve communal devices. One researcher has used the Calendar module to posts specific time slots which are reserved to meet with students. Students can then edit that slot and enter their name, scheduling their appointment.
- Use the storage module to demonstrate how mentees should regularly update their stored samples such that it is easy to retrieve those when needed.
- Utilize milestones to track experiment progression and identifying difficulties as soons as these emerge.
- A mentor and his/her student can sit together and analyze the data and experiment procedure quite easily using the project module.
And don’t forget – as there is no perfect person, there is no perfect mentor. Identify your weaknesses and continue improving them.
Adapted from The Connecticut Mentoring Partnership and the Business and Legal Reports, Inc. — Best Practices in Human Resources, Issue 653, September 30, 1999 Dr. Shirley Randell, http://www.shirleyrandell.com.au
Chen Guttman is a Graduate Student at the Zarivach lab in Ben Gurion University. Chen blogs at benchwise and serves as BioData's community liason.