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How to be a Good Scientific Mentor

PIs have an abundance of responsibilities, serving on academic committees, teaching, running a lab, writing papers and grants, and management duties are some of the requirements. In this maze of tasks, it's easy to forget one of the most important aspects of the job–mentoring.

by Jen Sbrogna, PhD
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The harsh reality is that graduate students have enormous expectations from their mentors. They’re looking for someone who is an accomplished scientist and also excels at training, motivating, inspiring, and supporting them as they complete their journey from graduate student to independent scientist. The upside of being recognized as a great mentor? The best and brightest graduate students will flock to your lab and be the driving force behind a highly successful operation. Here’s a refresher course for how to become a “great mentor.”

The gold standard: publish or perish

It goes without saying that good mentors should have productive publication records, publishing in top-tier, peer-reviewed journals often. If you don’t, graduate students will assume either the research coming out of your lab is not deemed newsworthy by journal editors, or that you don’t frequently submit articles — both lead one to question the quality of your research and your leadership skills.

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A good mentor is patient and inspirational

From the student’s perspective, graduate school is a long arduous process that will undoubtedly involve many missteps in designing experiments and generating testable hypotheses. Often times, the student can become so encumbered by the details of their project that they lose sight of the forest between the trees. Your job as an inspirational mentor is to recognize when a student is frustrated by the fickle nature of science and nudge them forward by reminding them that their research will provide answers to an important scientific question. Being a patient mentor means that you encourage your students to view their project from other vantage points and then give them the room to develop their own troubleshooting skills.

The best mentors know how to teach and manage people

Being a mentor means you have a long list of things to teach your students, including but not limited to: how to ask meaningful scientific questions and design sound experiments, how to execute various protocols, how to organize and present data, etc. You’re also responsible for managing an entire staff that may include undergraduate students, graduate students, lab technicians, animal care technicians, and postdoctoral fellows. As in any work environment, conflicts arise and you are often called upon to arbitrate. Ironically, mentors are scarcely ever trained in either teaching or managing so that students can easily wind up with mentors who lack both these skills. It’s important to be conscious of these qualities and to strive to be the best possible teacher and manager. If you feel deficient in either of these areas, seek out instructional workshops for formal training or consult more seasoned professors whose teaching and management skills you admire.

Developing a hypothesis-driven research project that is novel and focused

In addition to ensuring that your student is meeting program requirements (i.e., taking the required courses, passing comprehensive exams), you need to help the student design a hypothesis-driven project. Initially, you should work with the student to identify a novel scientific question and to generate the research aims and experiments to address this question. However, at some critical point, it’s imperative that you step back and allow the student to interpret their own data and evaluate whether their project is heading in the right direction. This step is crucial as it will foster independent and critical thinking in the student. You should also encourage the student to “think outside the box” as this is often how the best scientific advancements are achieved.

Self-promotion—the art of becoming a good storyteller

Once the student has enough data to share with the scientific community, it’s your job to recognize this crossroads and teach the student how to weave his/her data into an interesting story. This is not a trivial skill — there are many seasoned professors out there who may be world-renowned experts in their field of expertise yet still lack the ability to infect their audiences with the enthusiasm their work merits. To prevent this, you should set the presentation bar high for your students and expect them to reach for it. Encourage your students to apply often for talks at local and national meetings.

Once your student is awarded a talk, set plenty of time aside to coach him/her and insist on multiple practice talks. While presentation styles differ, you should instruct your students to always present the best picture of their data; the audience should not have to strain to see the data nor should it be a stretch for them to believe it. Teach your students how to develop a story that flows flawlessly from one slide to the next — perhaps by using question-based transitions to set up each slide. School your students on the importance of giving concise explanations and avoiding the dreaded monotone — a sure way to lull an audience to sleep. The final words of wisdom you can impart to your students are to enjoy themselves. After all, this is their data; if they’re fortunate enough to have a captive audience, they should present their data clearly and enthusiastically in order to inspire the audience to ask questions. Remind your students that every presentation is a golden opportunity to solicit constructive feedback from people who are experts in their field and who may be reviewing their papers someday.

That said, when students have a first-rate story, you, as their mentor, should be the first one to tell them to write it up. Paper writing is an art. The process will undoubtedly involve many rounds of back and forth between yourself and the graduate student, enduring reiterative permutations before reaching its final form. Supportive mentors know this and will guide their students through the process so that eventually, the student is capable of editing their own drafts. Putting the initial instructive time in with the student saves you countless hours in the long run as the quality of the drafts the student brings to you will dramatically improve.

Learning the bread and butter of a lab: grant writing

One of your final tasks as a mentor is to prepare your students for their eventual release into the work force. While you may think your job is mostly done at this stage, this is actually a highly significant time for a mentor and his/her student. Ultimately, the success and achievements of your students will reflect back on your mentoring. One critical tool with which you can equip your students is the ins and outs of grant writing. Although funding opportunities are scarce for foreign students, there are plenty of NIH-funded NRSA grants accessible to American students. While grant writing is time-and labor-intensive for both the mentor and the student, you will be richly rewarded if NIH chooses to fund your student’s grant. Not only will your student’s stipend now be paid by NIH instead of your own payroll, you will also have confirmation that NIH views your lab and mentoring as a promising training environment. Your graduate students will have successfully learned what it takes to secure outside funding and, in so doing, will be in a better position to acquire additional funding once they graduate.

Conducting a broad job search

Although you may expect your students to pursue the same path you did, a tenure-track position in academia, the reality is that these positions are highly competitive and scarce. Aside from this stark reality, it’s important to remember that not every Ph.D. candidate wants to wind up in academia. Your role here is to take the time to sit down with your students, hopefully a year or two before they graduate, and get a feel for where the student is headed. Regardless of whether their careers aspirations are in industry, academia, or possibly both, encourage them to apply to as many positions as possible. Advise them to explore a variety of avenues, to keep an open mind, and to consider the whole picture when making this important decision (i.e., money, work/life balance, autonomy, intellectual stimulation, etc.).

Introducing students to the power of networking

Something that goes hand in hand with fulfilling career aspirations is the importance of networking. As an established scientist, you are undoubtedly well aware of the value of networking in your community and should use every opportunity to introduce your students to your contacts and promote them as often as possible. The best place to do this is at conferences where face to face introductions can be made; however, you can also introduce your student in absentia by presenting their work in your talks and giving glowing reviews of their drive and intellect. Another easy method of introduction is through e-mail. These simple connections often lead to research collaborations between labs on different continents and may enable your students to author additional papers.

To reiterate, being a mentor can seem like an endless task. You may already feel overwhelmed by the myriad of other responsibilities that go hand in hand with being an academic scientist. However, minimizing the importance of your role as a mentor is to shortchange the potential productivity of your lab and could even adversely affect your own scientific reputation. Embrace the qualities of a good mentor and you will never find yourself at a loss for talented students whose research will result in a proliferative publication record for your lab.

In the next issue: what a grad student should look for when choosing a good scientific mentor