Mentoring Future Scientists: The role of grads and postdocs as mentors

Mentoring Future Scientists: The role of grads and postdocs as mentors

Future of Research is organizing a meeting to develop a set of departmental mentoring climate guidelines, with the potential to be used as an assessment tool by departmental leaders wishing to commit to actionable departmental improvement, and by ECRs to establish which departments are centering good mentorship in their priorities.

To join the meeting in Chicago, or at one of our satellites around the US, see the conference page here!

 

We often talk about the idea of academic mentorship in terms of a professor fostering the career of a researcher earlier in their career, such as a graduate student or postdoc. But of course the reality is that many graduate students and postdocs are themselves mentoring others themselves, including undergraduates. Two recent pieces discuss mentorship by “trainees” from a personal perspective, and in a scientific paper.

 

In Symbiosis: the mutual benefits of mentoring undergraduates in the lab on the ASCB COMPASS blog, Jami Conley Calderon recounts the experience of mentoring undergraduates and provides some key steps from their experience in an approach for graduate students to take when mentoring undergraduates:

  • Explain the lab’s research;
  • Encourage questions;
  • Be present;
  • Give students agency over their project;
  • Be understanding; and
  • Respect their time.

You can read the full post, with more details on each step, here.

 

In Volunteered or Voluntold? The Motivations and Perceived Outcomes of Graduate and Postdoctoral Mentors of Undergraduate Researchers, published in CBE-Life Sciences Education, Limeri, Asif and Dolan take a systematic approach to look at the postgraduate perspective of this mentoring experience.

 

Using exploratory interviews, the authors identified and characterized motivations for 32 postgraduates across 10 public and private research institutions in the US. Demographic information was not collected systematically but just over half were women; most were graduate students and five made comments identifying themselves as international scholars.

 

The authors classified “motivations and hesitations” to mentor. Impacts on research productivity were most commonly mentioned; most anticipated increased hands-at-the-bench or minds-on the problem as benefits; some expressed concern about increased demands on their time and limits on their productivity as a result of mentoring undergraduates. Most participants also expressed potential fun and enjoyment as a motivation to mentor. Some examples are shown in Tables 1 and 2 of the paper:

 

 

Roughly half of mentors associated developing skills with the opportunity to mentor undergraduates, and most of these mentors particularly mentioned developing interpersonal skills.

 

Mentors mentioned a number of costs and benefits to mentoring, shown in Tables 3 and 4 of the paper:

 

 

Those who were “voluntold” to mentor undergraduates by faculty advisors were in the minority in the study, and turned out to have their own motivations for mentoring undergraduates.

 

One stated that they had no choice but to take on undergraduate researchers due to the nature of their work, while the other four were either told to, or pressured to, mentor by PIs. In some cases, the mentor simply assigned an undergraduate without asking. One quote in the article illustrates the dynamic, and the subsequent motivation of the postgraduate mentor:

 

“I really like teaching, and I like sharing my passion for science. But I’m going to be honest, most of it was, “you’re a grad student, you have to mentor an undergrad.” That was the rule. My PI had a term, he would “voluntell” us to do things andthat was one of the things. But I really enjoyed it, so I didn’t mind.—Isabella”

 

In addition, none felt obligated to mentor in a particular way, and so possessed autonomy in mentorship style.

 

Both articles are linked from this post for further reading, and you can find further mentoring publications and resources at the National Research Mentoring Network website.

 

Don’t forget – Future of Research is organizing a meeting focused on mentorship – registration closes May 14th for the Chicago meeting, see the conference page and register here!

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