Journeys In Mentoring

As graduate students, postdocs, and professors, we are encouraged to be great teachers in the classroom, to do exceptional research, and to publish, publish, and publish some more. What is missing from this picture, however, is our role as mentors. Each of us will most likely mentor someone else in some capacity. As a professor, you may find undergraduates interested in your research that seek opportunities to work with you. As a postdoc or senior graduate student, you may take a junior student under your wing. Have you stopped to think about your role as a mentor? Your philosophy? Your expectations? Whether it's in a lab, a classroom, or somewhere else, mentoring relationships are likely inevitable. So what do you need to be a great mentor?

Last week we concluded the four-part Mentoring Seminar led by Assistant Dean for Graduate Student Affairs, Kerry Landers, and Roger Sloboda, the Ira Allen Eastman Professor of Biological Sciences and Professor in the Molecular and Cellular Biology Program. The seminar — designed to be a science-centric approach to mentoring — is based on information obtained at the NAS/HHMI Summer Teaching Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The series of four mentoring seminars combined sage information from experienced mentors with discussions with fellow graduate students, postdocs, and professors.

Did you miss it? Don't fret; here are some of the key takeaways.

Sessions 1 & 2: Foundations of Mentoring
The ultimate goal in mentoring is to create a foundation upon which to provide constructive feedback and professional guidance. As Sloboda put it one session, "it is as if there is a railroad track from one point to another that the mentor helps to lay down. The mentee then travels the path. The role of the mentor is not to pull or push the mentee down the track, but rather to make sure the mentee gets back on track should they veer off too much.” But how do we build this ‘railroad track?’

First, you must consider the project. There are many things you can do to design ideal undergraduate projects and set mentees up for success. A good undergraduate research project should be feasible and reasonable in scope, yet multi-faceted and enriching. It should begin with simple steps (e.g., learning to run procedures, assisting a senior member of the lab with their work). This greatly increases the chances your mentee will meet with some level of success early on, and thus receive positive feedback for their effort.

Of great importance is that the work then slowly evolves into more complex approaches, with the goal of generating presentable information or data. It is advisable, however, to have the project provide useful, but not critical, results, to avoid putting too much stress on the student and the outcomes of their project. Having your mentee work towards results related to the overall goals of the lab provides them with a sense of being an integral part of the lab team.

Sloboda recommends having a mentee outline a protocol prior to starting an experiment; doing so provides an opportunity for the mentor to query the student and explain the reasons for various steps, ensure the mentee has a plan, and to stay informed about the mentee’s progress with their work. A good project comes from well-defined expectations and an environment conducive to learning and problem-solving.

Having an explicit discussion with a mentee on your expectations is crucial in the early stages of starting a new project. Topics such as stress management, time management, independent work habits, and collaborating with others in the group should be discussed early and revisited often to ensure they are equipped with strategies for success.

But don’t get down to business too fast. You should make it a priority to ask about your mentee’s background and get to know them. Ask questions such as: where you are from? What drives you? What are your goals and what does success look like to you? What are your expectations of me and of this internship? At the very least this is an opportunity to get to know your mentee and show an interest in them. Doing so can help them feel like a valued member of your group. This may also help you revisit aspects of the project and adjust its difficulty and goals according to your mentee’s abilities, background, and time available.

It is also important that you afford your mentee the opportunity to get to know you. One way to accomplish this is to establish “protected time,” in addition to the usual lab group meeting, where you and your mentee can work and chat with limited interruptions from emails, phone calls, and other common distractions. From the beginning you should aim to share yourself, recounting your own successes and failures.

At the beginning of a mentor-mentee relationship, one of your most important duties is to integrate your mentee into your world. Show them around the lab. Show them around the building. Show them where they can get supplies and coffee, tea, water, and anything else they might need. Introduce them to other members of your group and other people on your floor with whom they are likely to interact. Also, help them see how their project fits with other work going on in the group. As a mentor, you want to ensure you have done everything you can to set your mentee up for success. Often, these seemingly little actions can have the biggest impact!

Sessions 3 & 4: Challenges & Opportunities in Mentoring
Okay, so we’ve laid the foundation. What now? Inevitably we will wonder how we are doing. Is our approach to mentoring effective? The best way to find out: talk with your mentee. Ask for honest feedback. Ask your mentee to expand on vague answers if you feel that more information could help you be a better mentor to them. Even if you think things are going well, make a habit of checking in from time to time. In other words, be proactive.

One challenge that we face as mentors is that we may need to ask personal questions. They may pertain to our relationship with our mentee or their personal lives and how that is affecting their work. In our third session, we discussed some of the major dos and don'ts of question-asking as a mentor. Many of the takeaways here, as you might imagine, involve maintaining respectful boundaries (never, for example, ask personal favors of them), being sensitive towards their past and present circumstances, and simply making it known that you are there for them if they need anything from you. All of this assumes, of course, that you’ve been working to get to know your mentee and have learned about aspects of their personal life, background, and other circumstances.

Diversity is another pressing topic and, despite policy and institutional shifts towards addressing inequalities and improving diversity, under-represented minorities and women face many obstacles to success. Effective mentors will be aware of these inequalities, and will advocate for their mentee to ensure the path to their success is clear and free.

Out of this topic grew a considerable amount of discussion on implicit bias. Whether we know it or not — and whether we like to admit it or not — we all have biases, many of which may be unconscious biases. Some examples from studies we discussed: writing skills were rated as lower when credited to black writers, than if credited to white writers; women are often seen as having lesser leadership abilities than men, even though both have similar qualifications and background; and, when it comes to hiring, it has been shown that hiring committees' assessment of CVs, quality of publications, and letters of recommendations are affected by gender biases. And the reality today is that these biases subject women and other minority groups to higher expectations (e.g., requiring a higher publication count to be hired or promoted), or can undermine their ability to run a research group or obtain grant funding.

What do we do about this?

Unfortunately, there is no guidebook that will relieve us of our biases. We all bring a lifetime’s worth of cultural history and experiences that shape our thought process and our interactions with others. As mentors, however, we need to create an environment where diversity is embraced and celebrated, so that all students with whom you work feel appreciated. By mentoring and advocating for diversity in our school, department, lab, and classrooms, we can actually learn and talk about our differences, be they gender, race, culture, and so forth. As a result, we become more effective at relating to others, and this will help us treat others more fairly.

By educating ourselves about these hidden biases, we can begin to understand how they impact our own decision-making and how we engage and interact with people that are different from us. The takeaway here is an emphasis on the importance of awareness of these issues and open discussion of them. As mentors, we must strive to understand biases and how they affect our mentees. Then, you can work to avoid them and help your mentees overcome needless and harmful obstacles.

While mentors will undoubtedly face numerous other challenges, it is possible to address many of them with the foundations discussed in this article. These lessons — these simple takeaways — are incredibly useful and applicable when considering different tasks we may perform as mentors, such as designing effective projects for mentees, helping them prepare presentations and publications, dealing with situations that need correction, providing feedback, and writing letters of recommendation.

We’re sorry if we missed you this time around. If this seminar sounds interesting to you, be sure to be on the lookout for the next offering. Also, check out upcoming related workshops offered by the School of Graduate and Advanced Studies.