Great mentoring experiences - things I’ve found helpful

June 12, 2012 | by Nick Snead

So far, both of my experiences mentoring younger students (a summer student and a grad student on rotation) in our lab have been great. I felt the mentees and I were able to strike a balance between their non-lab and lab commitments, and ultimately they reached a valuable endpoint in their project.

Admittedly, being a mentor takes time and reprioritization of one’s own projects. Nonetheless, I shared a real sense of accomplishment with my mentees.

Upon personal reflection, I think many (if not all) of us have had poor experiences as mentees ourselves, and I was determined to make a conscious effort to identify the successful and unsuccessful aspects of my past mentors and integrate and improve, respectively, those aspects as part of my own mentoring style.

You would have to ask my mentees whether or not they felt these actions were helpful, but here are some things that I, as a mentor, felt were helpful, and things that I would have appreciated if I were a mentee.

 1) Establish a long-term schedule — and stick to it or formally adjust it. While in years past there sometimes has been some ambiguity on the deadlines of final reports, in general, the mentee will know an approximate end date of their rotation or summer session. A reasonable assumption would be that the final report be completed the following week. Therefore, we established a plan (e.g., to have 25 percent of the report completed the week before the end of the rotation, 50 percent completed by the end of the rotation and 100 percent completed three days after the end of the rotation). It is important to be flexible, too, but instead of saying, “OK, just do it later,” we defined an exact date for an extension.

 2) Show some photos of lab members — and label the photos with names to link faces to names. This probably depends on the size of one’s lab. But, imagine: For relatively large labs, how awkward is it to be walking by lab members and not know their names, or something about them? I think this helps foster a sense of belonging and a team mentality in the lab.

 3) Provide carefully-selected preparatory reading before starting. I think we all know what it was like when, on the first day of a class, an instructor assigned 30-plus pages of reading, without any hint as to what is particularly important. Can we, as mentors, do better than that? I think so. Review articles are a good place to start, and I try to narrow down the important parts. (E.g., “Please read Smith et al., pages 1-4, 6-7, and Figure 3. You also may need to read pages 2-3 of Johnson et al.”) I would argue that this was a useful exercise for me, as the mentor, to demonstrate to myself that I knew the literature, and could identify the 2, 4 and 6 most important papers for a project, depending on the depth of the project.

 4) Compose a list of safety information and discuss together to draft a list of expectations for certain lab techniques. If a student already has done qPCR and cloning in their previous projects, try to find a way to integrate an unknown technique (e.g., western blotting or dual luciferase assays) into their project to the extent that they are competent in those assays.

 5) Administer a quiz on broad and key concepts for the mentee’s project. The answers to the quiz questions should appear in the select reading assigned. The purpose is simply to establish the mentee’s baseline at the beginning. Stress that this is not a test and that it is OK if the mentee does not know some of the answers. Discuss thoroughly unclear answers and express encouragement that the mentee can expect to learn the answers to the questions during the project.

 6) If your lab has group lab meetings, send summaries of other lab members’ projects a few days prior to lab meetings. Again, maybe this is lab-size and lab-structure dependent (i.e., if everyone in the lab is all working on the same project, this might not be as crucial), but I think we’ve all experienced being in some sort of meeting (science-related or not) where we had no idea what the heck was going on, and no matter how much attention we paid, we did not have the necessary foundation to understand what the speaker was talking about. Therefore, before a weekly lab meeting, find out who is presenting and write three to four bullet points about the basis for the person’s project (perhaps even a link to a Wikipedia article or a paper about the project), anticipation about what progress the presenter has made since last time and the types of assays the mentee could expect to see from the presenter.

 7) When your mentee tries anything for the first time, require him or her to carry a lab notebook and write everything down, no matter how mundane the task. I think we all have that one arcane or archaic piece of equipment in our lab that, despite what the manual says, you need to press one little extra button to make it work. Or, despite what a paper’s materials and methods section says, there is one little insider trick to get a better result. I think most of us, as mentors, are good about sharing these things, but I submit that we should be equally good about demanding that the mentee write these tips down and use their notebook as a technical reference, not just an endpoint repository for assay data.

 8) At the end of the project, readminister the same quiz from #5 above. Use this as a tool to demonstrate how much the student has learned since the beginning.

 I’m sure you have other suggestions. Feel free to comment below.

Unfortunately, it happens that I’ve heard about other mentors having very poor experiences with their mentees. Maybe it was because a principal investigator handed a mentee to a student mentor without really asking. Maybe it was really bad timing. But, I fully believe that having a successful mentorship is not purely luck nor completely unattributable to the mentor, and that there are things the mentor can and should do to have a successful experience. As a grad student, I simply assume I will encounter many unexpected responsibilities or expectations (e.g., serving as a teaching assistant for Current Topics, being invited to speak at the monthly Postdoc/Grad Student Research Forum or mentoring a summer student). But with conscious effort, preparation and reflection, the experience can be successful and rewarding.

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