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Mentoring Questions.

27 September 2013

There’s been a decent amount of discussion in the science blogscape recently about mentorship. See Tenure She Wrote, and Michael Tomasson. Now, as I’m not a traditional academic, I don’t have formal mentoring relationships. However, I have always worked to maintain opportunities for mentored internships, and I’ve published about how I believe they should be structured, specifically for undergraduate engineers in hospital environments.

And now that I’ve started work on my grant, I have two young engineers working for me on my big, exciting project. Two young women, one from Very Fancy University (VFU) and one from University of High Regard (UHR). One a senior, the other a fourth-year-of-five dual degree student. They’re both very competant and driven.

I just want to make this a kind of an open thread, and hopefully some of my scientist friends will engage. I’ll be with the students for about 3 months. What’s the one best best thing I should do to be a good mentor? How can I maximize my usefulness, beyond teaching them something of value academically, and providing them with exposure to real-world engineering in healthcare?

How can I be the best mentor I can be?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Jared permalink
    27 September 2013 08:48

    Break the ice. Keep them talking about their levels of motivation, and track it.

  2. Michael H permalink
    27 September 2013 11:08

    My approach is to first ask them what they want out of their time under your mentorship, especially if they feel there is something they want to learn from you.

    Then work your butt off to give it to them according to their relative strengths and weaknesses.

  3. jen permalink
    27 September 2013 11:17

    I’m a preschool teacher, not a scientist…but it is not unique to children that we do our best and learn most effectively when we are acknowledged for our hard work and inspired about what we’re working on. My advice would be to help them to see the relevance of the work they are doing in concrete and personal ways, and use intrinsically phrased praise at every opportunity ie “doesn’t it feel amazing to know that you can potentially save a life, or someone s eyesight. or whatever with the work you have been doing?”

  4. Syd permalink
    29 September 2013 09:25

    I like the idea that the mentor – trainee relationship is dynamic. Communication about expectations and goals need to happen throughout the course of the project. Listening remains an important part of any good communication. Pay attention to the needs and goals of each other and you will find success as you work towards your common goals.

    I also like what NSF includes as examples of mentoring activities:

    1. training in preparation of grant proposals, publications and presentations;
    2. career counseling;
    3. guidance on ways to improve teaching and mentoring skills;
    4. guidance on how to effectively collaborate with researchers from diverse backgrounds and disciplinary areas;
    5. training in responsible professional practices.

    Item #1. For me, this is the easiest one to accomplish. It is difficult to imagine a reasonably sane and functioning trainee in my research group not getting a lot of experience with these activities. I would work closely with my staff on writing papers and preparing presentations, and there’s typically a grant proposal in the works that can involve a student interested in such things. In fact, I encouraged students to write their own proposals for funding of research.

    Item #2. My own experience begins and ends with research in government and academia. I can speak at length about both types of jobs and how to approach acquiring one at various types and sizes of institutions based on my own experiences. Career counseling about industry or other career modes would have to come from someone else. And if I knew of someone in that career mode, I would find a way for a student to talk to them. There are workshops and conferences on careers in science which I encourage students to consider.

    Item #3. My students could help supervise hourly workers, but they did not teach unless they were student teaching in introductory marine science classes. I didn’t provide them with the necessary career skills they need to succeed in a faculty position. But I did encourage them to participate in some workshops that prepare grad students and postdocs for the various components of a faculty position.

    In a short (1-2 year) postdoc or student internship in particular, there isn’t much time to do anything except the research. Most postdocs enjoy having this time to really focus on research. It may be the one time in an academic career (other than the occasional sabbatical) when you are free of taking/teaching courses, taking/giving exams, and doing endless managerial and administrative tasks. On the one hand, research-only experience may not prepare you for a faculty position in which you have to balance teaching – research – service, but it can set you up well for the research component if you start some long-term projects and develop important collaborations that will carry you through the first few crazy years of a faculty position.

    Item #4. The best way to effectively do item #4 is for the student or postdoc to work on a research project that involves a diverse group of other scientists. Most of my projects were diverse in terms of disciplines involved, and some involved international collaborators.

    I’m not sure what to do about the word ‘guidance’ for #4, because to me it meant guidance through the ‘lead by example’ type of passive ‘guidance’. If I saw a problem with how a graduate student interacted with another scientist owing to their being from a different field, country, ethnicity, or gender, I would certainly leap into action, but other than that, most things get figured out just by working together and doing the research.

    Item #5. Well, there were certainly a lot of opportunities for this at my research laboratory. It seems to be a requirement but was something that I didn’t relish at all. I have found most of them without exception to be a huge waste of time and largely irrelevant to my experience as a professor of marine science. I would not voluntarily subject my students to these idiotic training sessions. The only ones that were useful were the ones related to boating certification and safe driving. Also, the optional Red Cross training was useful and mandatory. But the time management stuff, leadership training, and other managerial seminars were really a waste of time.

    As far as ethics, I prefer to lead by example and discuss informally issues related to co-authorship and credit and sharing/stealing ideas and so on.

    What else could be on the list for mentoring activities? What do students and postdocs want? (other than higher salaries, better benefits, and, in some fields, more respect). My supervisory experience has either involved happy, productive and energetic students or those who were aimless and lazy. I generally did spent way too much time on the latter than was warranted.

    Sorry to be long winded here.

    • 30 September 2013 06:28

      Wow, Syd, thanks! Please don’t apologize, it’s exactly what I needed.

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