Why You Need To Mentor, No Matter What Your Level
From a graduate student’s perspective, it often seems as though there are two types of labs: those that mentor well and those that don’t. This distinction can mean the difference between a brief, productive Ph.D. and an aimless, meandering waste of time and money. Mentorship is not simply the domain of the major professor but should be practiced at every level from the senior faculty member to the undergrad trainee. Every lab member is both a potential teacher and a student depending on the context. The most effective labs are those that not only mentor, but train their students to mentor.
Learn by teaching
Many graduate programs require a TAship specifically for this purpose: you have to really know a subject in order to teach it. Teaching requires reexamining your own perception of a subject and stimulates interaction within the lab. In addition, most grad students and post docs are training for an eventual faculty or leadership position where they will be asked to teach in a classroom or lab. Early teaching experience will help them hone their skills and develop their own mentoring style.
Graduate students should be encouraged to take on one or more lab assistants (usually undergrads) looking for laboratory experience. Lab assistants can take time to train and may initially seem like a burden. The investment will pay off though as the assistant becomes a skilled technician capable of handling bench work while allowing the grad student more time to plan experiments, analyze data, and write manuscripts.
It is also a valuable learning experience for grad students as well who may be aspiring to run their own labs in the future. Having a lab assistant requires grad students to be organized and to plan for the day’s work well in advance. Inquisitive lab assistants can also keep their mentor sharp with insightful questions and an outside viewpoint. The relationship can not only boost productivity but foster a fun working environment as well.
More and more the days of the lone experimenter are waning and collaboration is fast becoming the mantra of modern research. It is just not feasible for one person to master all the techniques necessary for a quality, large-scale research project. Personal interaction is key when assembling a collaborative team and the mentor relationship becomes dynamic in a group where members have varied expertise. For example, senior lab members help steer the overall design of a project while junior members take the lead on technical issues. A lab that encourages mentorship at every level will find its members more comfortable with assuming leadership roles when necessary. This makes not only for better collaborations, but also better science.
Hindsight is all well and good, but foresight is better. Perhaps a mentor’s greatest gift, and often the most overlooked, is career guidance. Learn from someone who has “been there, done that” and now doing the kind of job that interests you. Major professors are instrumental in guiding their post docs and grad students through all the grant proposals, publications, and red tape needed to land a faculty position. Of course your choice of mentor depends on your ultimate career goals. In the same way, grad students can offer advice to undergrads who are applying to graduate school, medical school, or industry. Mentors offering career advice will often find themselves reflecting on their own goals and accomplishments, giving them more insight into directions for the future.
We all know research can be isolating at times and the temptation to retreat into your own comfort zone is powerful. Mentoring will keep you connected to the “real world” by forcing social interaction and challenging your prowess as a leader. Mentoring will also keep you primed for giving lectures, presentations, and engaging in seminars. The more connected you become with your community, the more you will learn and grow as a scientist.
And of course, mentoring is fun! As beneficial it can be to receive advice from a mentor, it is equally rewarding to pass on your knowledge.
Labs who mentor well do not just train scientists, they train leaders. People who take their mentoring roles seriously develop great leadership skills. How do you and your lab do?
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I see your point Christopher, I didn’t really open up a debate, but I welcome it in the comments. It is great to hear the terms “social butterfly” and “research scientist” in the same sentence, because stimulating interaction makes for exciting science. I guess I’ve seen the other extreme in labs where mentorship was absent, people did not interact much, and productivity suffered. I think personal interaction helps spark collaborations which are becoming ever more vital to the publication process as research itself becomes more integrated. I definitely agree with the feed-forward cycle you suggest, mostly because I know it works for me. I’m sure not every scientist needs to be involved in mentoring, but I propose it is certainly never a bad thing. Thanks for the comments!
Excellent article Richard! To put it simply, I agree with this point-for-point. Having gone through multiple career stages as a scientist- undergrad, graduate, postdoc, biotech- I firmly stand with you in that the very best of those labs, a strong mentoring system was in place: the PI mentored senior grad students, senior grad students mentored junior grad students, junior grad students mentored undergraduates, and such.
By contrast, any inhospitable labs I’ve been in were the way they were because the mentoring system has broken down… or perhaps they had never been set up in the first place.
The one thing I might call you on in this article is just a personal point, not even a debate as to whether you’re right or wrong on it. With respect to your final point on socializing: for me, personally, there is no temptation to retreat into my own comfort zone… not at all! In fact, the isolating tendency of science can really drive me bananas at times! Sometimes I think I’m more social butterfly than research scientist, and now having read your article, I wonder in retrospect if it may be due to mentoring. Perhaps mentoring and socializing are a feed-forward cycle: the more you mentor, the more social you are, and the more social you are, the more you tend to mentor.