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The Value of Mentorship in the Scientific Field

Training scientists to do good science from the start

by Donna Kridelbaugh
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The value of effective mentorship in the sciences is increasingly being recognized. Mentoring is tied to many benefits for a mentee (e.g., increased research productivity and career satisfaction), which also benefits the lab overall. Anyone can learn to be an effective mentor with the right training and practice. However, mentoring is not an isolated endeavor, and a team-based approach (e.g., peer-mentoring groups) can provide a holistic support system to ensure an individualized mentoring experience.

Why mentoring in the lab matters

Research shows that the presence of effective mentoring relationships in the lives of early-career scientists is a strong indicator for career success. According to Christine Pfund, an associate scientist in the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has extensively researched mentoring in the sciences, “In short, good mentorship impacts who does science, how productive they are, and how satisfied they are on a science career path.”

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While technical skills and scientific theory can be taught in the classroom, Suzanne E. Barbour, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and dean of the graduate school at the University of Georgia, says that much of what it means to be a professional scientist is just too nuanced to learn in that setting. Thus, a mentor is needed to serve as a role model to show trainees what is expected of a “card-carrying member of the profession.”

Mentoring support is especially important in the laboratory-based sciences, where the tedious nature of bench work and an isolating lab environment can quickly burn out a new scientist. As Joshua Morgan, postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Delaware, and recipient of the 2016 Proteintech Best Postdoc Mentor Award, explains, “Research is uniquely frustrating, and without positive mentoring, it can drive good scientists away from the lab, or worse, to ethically questionable choices.”

Mentoring also provides reciprocal benefits for the mentor and collective benefits for science. Joanne Kamens, executive director of Addgene, explains, “Good mentoring increases job satisfaction by making sure scientists are always learning and growing. Happier people work better.” Additionally, she says, “Mentorship does more than increase scientific output—it makes it possible for good science to happen at all.”

And Morgan agrees, “Honestly, mentoring is one of those things that just keeps paying dividends. In addition to the emotional rewards of helping fellow scientists achieve, surrounding yourself with capable scientists enables good science.” Therefore, it is critical for mentors to train scientists proactively in how to do good science from the start.

Cultivating effective mentoring relationships

Pfund defines mentoring as “engaging in a collaborative learning relationship that proceeds through purposeful stages over time and has the primary goal of helping mentees acquire the essential competencies needed for success in their chosen career.” Therefore, mentoring as a collaborative process requires shared responsibility between mentor and mentee to make it work.

Kamens advises that in this relationship, the mentor’s role is to help set concrete goals to which the mentee is held accountable, give honest and regular feedback, and make the most of a mentee’s strengths, while being careful not to micromanage or be demeaning. In turn, she says, the mentee needs to be prepared for meetings, not be afraid to ask questions, and always be coachable.

When starting a new mentoring relationship, it is imperative to set expectations from the start. Pfund advises that a lab manager openly acknowledge what roles he or she can play as a mentor, and address how any conflicts will be resolved. Likewise, Morgan says that honesty is key in the relationship: mentors need to be honest about what support they can provide and mentees about what they need.

Effective mentoring is also dependent on regular and open communications. Kamens suggests, “For starters, have regular meetings and keep these appointments. Absentee managers result in trainees taking wrong turns that can waste time and resources.” During the initial meetings, she advises that mentors focus on asking questions instead of giving answers, in order to understand how best to support the mentee.

Barbour emphasizes that both parties in the mentoring relationship need to take into account each other’s personality types and communication styles to determine the best way to work together. She also recommends developing a mentoring compact to ensure expectations are aligned, because it “provides an opportunity for the mentor and mentee to agree on a plan of action, milestones, and expected outcomes of their relationship.” Other useful tools include individual or professional development plans to track a mentee’s progress toward career goals.

Overall, an effective mentoring relationship is built upon mutual respect. Morgan emphasizes the importance of treating everyone as a collaborator and understanding the perspective of the mentee. He explains, “Being a repository of knowledge is probably the biggest advantage as a mentor, but it’s important to keep perspective that these were things you didn’t know once. Remember, it’s not what they do (or do not) know that makes them good scientists, but it’s whether or not they are willing to learn.”

Barbour also warns mentors to be cognizant of implicit biases and stereotype threats that can sabotage the relationship. She remarks, “Sometimes, even the most thoughtful mentors say and do things that hurt their mentees and come from a place of ignorance or inability to perceive a stereotype threat.” In the end, she says, “The most successful mentoring relationships evolve into colleague-colleague relationships.”

Mentoring is a team-based effort

Mentoring often works best with a team-based approach. As Morgan emphasizes, a single mentor “can’t be everything to everybody,” and so being a good mentor is also about connecting mentees to other people to talk to or other relevant resources.

Additionally, mentoring should not take a one-size-fits-all approach, but rather be tailored to the individual mentee based on his or her skills, interests, and values. Therefore, having a team of mentors who provide guidance in different aspects of science is important for individualized professional development.

A team approach also expands the capacity for mentoring within an organization. This team can be composed of other lab members, especially senior lab staff or trainees for whom being a mentor is important for their own professional development.

Morgan mentions that as a postdoctoral researcher and mentor, he may be more in touch with understanding the frustrations of junior lab members because he remembers what it’s like to juggle classes and long, often non-rewarding hours of research. As he explains, “I try to offer a slightly longer perspective that research success takes months and years, which can be hard to see when the day-to-day seems to be going nowhere.”

Another team mentoring approach is through the use of peer mentoring groups. Kamens has had much success in implementing peer mentoring within numerous professional organizations and her own company. She states that peer mentoring provides multiple benefits for those involved, including a diversity of input and perspectives, increased accountability, and an expanded professional network.

The peer mentoring group structure includes five to eight colleagues who may share a common characteristic (e.g., similar career stage) and may include one or two assigned senior mentors. The group meets regularly and has a focused agenda; a leader is assigned from among the members on a rotational basis to cover an identified topic of interest to the group. This structure allows participants to both learn and gain valuable skills (e.g., leadership, communications) during the process.

Ultimately, the laboratory director or principal investigator has the primary responsibility for ensuring lab members receive the resources and support they need to be successful. Kamens points out that institutions and funding agencies will likely hold these individuals even more accountable in the future. For example, many funding agencies now require grant recipients to show proof of mentoring plans for science trainees.

Thus, mentoring is increasingly being recognized as an integral component of the research training process, and institutions can help promote its value among staff. Pfund explains that institutions can do this by creating a culture of mentorship in which mentoring is acknowledged as a valued activity and counted toward promotion.

Training and practice are key to becoming an effective mentor

Mentoring is a skill that can be learned and improved upon over time with training and practice. In fact, Pfund and her colleagues have spent over a decade researching and developing evidence-based practices and training curricula for research mentors and trainees. Many of these resources are available online for free to the science community through several initiatives.

The National Research Mentoring Network, an NIH-funded program with the goal of increasing diversity in the biomedical sciences, provides a number of valuable mentoring resources that include an online research mentor training certificate and virtual mentoring network. Also, the website of the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research contains a collection of mentor training curricula across a range of scientific disciplines, and the center provides consulting and evaluation services to help organizations successfully implement mentor training programs.

Another way to learn best mentoring practices is from observation. Barbour says to identify an outstanding mentor and seek out advice on what works. But the most practical strategy for learning how to mentor effectively may simply be trial and error, as there is no substitute for real experience.

As Morgan explains, “Everything is theory until you put it into practice: work with students, get feedback from them about what helps and what doesn’t, and be self-critical! If you’ve had a tough conversation with a student, ask yourself what you could have done differently. If a student isn’t learning, don’t throw up your hands and say they are unreachable, but figure out a different strategy to reach them. I think the best training is doing it and questioning yourself as you do.”


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