Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

Choosing A Good Scientific Mentor

Choosing the right mentor is akin to choosing a life partner. Ideally, it should be a relationship that nurtures the graduate student for life.

by Jen Sbrogna, PhD
Register for free to listen to this article
Listen with Speechify

Scientific mentors should stimulate intellectual independence, critical and analytical thinking skills, and foster professional growth in their students. As Eric Parsloe from The Oxford School of Coaching & Mentoring puts it, “Mentoring is to support and encourage people to manage their own learning in order that they may maximize their potential, develop their skills, improve their performance and become the person they want to be.” So, given the critical role of a mentor, how should graduate students go about making this decision? Outlined below are some factors the student should consider to ensure their time in graduate school is well spent and well guided.


Choosing the right mentor requires students do some preliminary homework. Fortunately, most graduate programs facilitate this by requiring first-year graduate students to rotate through at least two to four different research labs before choosing their mentor. These rotations can last either weeks or months and usually culminate in the student giving an overview of their project in either a talk or poster format. For the student, this time is very valuable as it allows them to understand the type of research done in the lab. It also enables them to observe how the potential mentor interacts with the senior students in the lab, and to gage the overall productivity of the lab. At the same time, the potential mentor is evaluating the student’s capabilities. Since the rotation is time-restricted, the potential mentor gives the student a well defined project whose experimental aims can be reasonably completed within the allotted time. Depending on the lab size and the prior experience of the rotation student, the mentor may provide minimal to extensive guidance for the student by pairing him/her with a more senior student. Another benefit to these rotations is that it enables the student to compare and contrast different lab cultures and mentoring personalities prior to making a long-term commitment.


Perhaps one of the most important things to consider is that the personalities of the mentor and mentee be compatible. This is obviously something that is difficult to gage, but hopefully, the graduate student will get a feel for this during the rotation period. The student will be working very closely with the mentor for a period of, on average, four to six years. During this time, there will undoubtedly be many peaks and valleys in the student’s research project that will be much easier to weather if the student’s personality is somewhat compatible with the mentor’s.


Because the student will only rotate through a handful of labs, they should select only those labs whose research truly intrigues them. Often, the graduate school will hand first-year students a list of “open” labs — meaning these principal investigators (PIs) have the room and time to accommodate rotation students. Students should review this list, read the research briefs for each professor and pre-select a number to investigate further. The next step is to look at each PI’s publication record on PubMed, the online database of medical literature, and assess the PI’s overall productivity (i.e., how many articles/year) and the quality of the journals they publish in. This is one of the most critical steps a graduate student can take in choosing the right mentor. If a PI publishes frequently, but only in bottom tier journals, then it’s probably better to go with the PI who publishes a little less frequently but in highly respected journals like Cell or Science.


Once entrenched in their first rotation lab, students should get a feel for the lab culture. By observing the relationship between the PI and the students, they can predict the type of mentoring they would receive if they chose this mentor. They should assess whether the other students generally seem happy in the lab and if they feel their mentor is adept at teaching and managing them. While these two skills are an integral part of successful mentoring, ironically, mentors are scarcely ever formally trained in either one. The best way to identify those rare mentors who possess both these qualities is to ask their current graduate students. In general, if the graduate students are happy and productive in their work environment, then they’re most likely fortunate enough to have mentors who are good teachers AND good managers. Students should also ask the senior students in the lab how they would describe their relationship with the PI. Are they satisfied with their research projects and with the feedback they get from the PI? Are there frequent lab meetings? If so, does each student get a chance to present his/her progress and is the feedback constructive?

A final thing to evaluate during the rotation period is the average amount of time it takes students to graduate from this lab. Do the PI and the student seem to agree on the timeframe for graduation? They should also ask where former students of this PI end up — are they in well placed positions that will serve as springboards for their future careers? Of course, if this PI has a competitive publication record, then one can assume the graduate students will be able to pursue competitive postdoctoral fellowships in either academia or industry.


Most potential mentors will tell a graduate student at the beginning of their rotation whether or not they have “space” for them in the long term. The word space may be used to describe whether they can physically accommodate this graduate student (i.e., bench space, desk, and other supplies) and whether or not they can fund this student. If a mentor fails to mention how well the lab is funded, don’t hesitate to ask them directly. They expect this question to be asked and will certainly understand if a student does not choose their lab due to insecure funding.


The overall size of the lab often dictates how much one-onone interaction a graduate student can expect to have with the mentor. In general, smaller labs enable mentors to spend more time with their graduate students and may even allow the mentor to personally train students on certain techniques. Larger labs often result in fewer and shorter individual meetings with the mentor. Regardless of lab size, students should consider whether or not there are weekly lab meetings where students present the ongoing progress of their projects. If there are regularly scheduled lab and individual meetings, then students will most likely get consistent and frequent guidance from the mentor. This level of interaction between the student and the mentor will significantly enhance a lab’s “training potential,” a term that is used by NIH review committees to assess the overall level of intellectual stimulation and the breadth of techniques a scientist will be exposed to in a given lab.

A student also needs to consider whether or not the faculty member is tenured. There are advantages and disadvantages that fall on either side of this status. Tenured mentors have seniority and stability. They’ve already proven themselves to the scientific community and to the university so they’re more likely to have clout and will be able to help you network — something that is very important for a budding scientist’s career. On the flip side, while non-tenured mentors may lack the security of tenure, they’re usually extremely motivated and will push their graduate students to publish in top tier journals since they only have a short period of time to prove themselves before tenure review.

In sum, graduate students should take the responsibility of choosing a mentor very seriously. They should rotate in labs whose research and productivity impress them, familiarize themselves with the different mentoring techniques of each PI, and survey other students for feedback on the lab and the PI. If they approach this process with their eyes wide open, they should be able to find a mentor who will inspire them to ask important scientific questions and will empower them to achieve intellectual independence and success throughout their scientific careers.