Mentoring is the Most Rewarding Challenge in Research

A Theoretical Aside

This post is in reference to a conversations that I have been a party to the other day on twitter that started from a simple question from @katiesci. Basically, the conversation veered away from whether or not to include your undergraduate student’s posters on your CV toward why one should celebrate mentoring (I admit, I may have been the one to steer the conversation that way). Further conversations ensued that further described the arbitrary treatment of undergraduate and graduate students to do tasks that the PI just wanted done, but did not benefit the student in any discernible way (i.e., formatting the boss’ CV). What I learned from these conversations is that there are no widely accepted guidelines for mentoring and there are widely divergent views on how it should be done and what credit should be given for student work (see comments section on this post from @drugmonkeyblog).

To start off, I need to state have very strong opinions about the importance of mentoring in science. I am also a passionate advocate on behalf of student volunteers and employees rights. I have been known to flip out at PIs, postdocs, and grad students who treat the undergrads poorly. This animus comes from the fact that my career exists at the level it does primarily on the efforts of a small army of undergraduate and high school students running behavioral experiments under my direction. see bottom of page in my publications for a list.

Background Information

I started my research career as an undergraduate student working for work study at the University of Utah working for Ray Kesner. I distinctly remember sitting down with the graduate student Inah, who drew a diagram of the hippocampus to show me what we were going todo for the experiment. Now, I understood none of this conversation and thought we were injecting CA3 into a brain area called AP5 into the hippocampuhsomethingorother-but I greatly appreciate Inah’s trying to make me understand what his hypothesis was and how I was going to test it with him.

After a few more chats with Inah, I knew I was injecting AP5 into CA3, where the hippocampus was in the brain, and what the rat brain looked like inside and out. I mention this because I was a student who demanded a lot out of my supervisors. I always wanted to know what I was doing and why. And Inah explained it all to me, not a small task since he was still learning English and had a very prominent Korean accent to contend with. When I was running my rats for Inah, he would regularly check on my progress to make sure everything was working, mainly by scaring the tar out of me by randomly jamming his head under my armpit to look through a pair of eyeholes in the curtain that was covering the doorway to the experimental room. I still look back at those moments as a student with fondness, mainly because I could tell Inah cared not only for his data, but was also willing to provide me with the tools and knowledge I felt I needed to collect the data correctly.

Flash forward a few years, after a break I turned to Ray’s lab, this time as a research volunteer. Unfortunately, I was not so well blessed in my assignment of graduate student. No names will be provided but I was assigned to a rotating graduate student. They were the opposite to Inah. They felt it was inappropriate to give me any background to what I was doing and were impossible to locate during the day, so there was no way the other students and I could ask any questions. Worse, when we thought we were doing something right and it was clear there was no effect, the finish line was moved and we had to scramble and start over-and made to feel it was our fault. This experience was so bad that I set a meeting with Ray to tell him I was not going to be able to work in his lab anymore and ask for help in finding another research position elsewhere on campus.

Ray decided the best way to keep me around, was to have me work directly with him, and cut out the student middleman. Needless to say I jumped at the chance. Long story short, this changed my life, full stop. Ray’s mentoring style was to hand a student a task about 25% too advanced for them, and let the student figure it out with as little guidance as needed from him to accomplish the task. In my life I have yet to encounter a motivational strategy more effective than that one.

After a year or so, Ray decided that I needed to have students working for me and sort of promoted me to take charge of all his pet projects. Now, at this point the real work started for Ray. He now had to teach a student how to mentor other students. Now let me just eliminate the idea now that he did this by giving me one student at a time. No, he gave me all 10 of his students to supervise and he left me to it, paying just enough attention in the background to bail me out if I messed up. With Ray’s help I have had to date over 40 students (undergraduate volunteers and high school summer students) that stuck through over a year of work under my supervision and most have at least posters or often a manuscript authorship of some sort: This fact that fills me up with pride every time I think of it.


Now, with Ray as well as during my graduate and postdoctoral work afterward, I have developed a style that I find very effective for mentoring students.

This is it in a number of rules:

1- their time is more important than mine

2- their experiments are more important than mine

3- their problems are my problems

4- if they fail, it is because I failed them first

5- we are all snowflakes

Boiled down, what this means is that I give every student all of my attention while I am training them. I spend hour after hour at the chalkboard or whiteboard (or iPad increasingly) drawing diagrams and sketching potential results and/or experimental design ideas with them. Importantly, I always take their suggestions and ideas into account. If they are wrong I respectfully and patiently educate them as to the correct way to approach a questions to find the answer they need. I give them the manuscripts the experiments are based on and set times to read with them and have a discussion with them as if we were equals, not as employee-supervisor. I also ask them to design the data sheets for data collection and to write as much of any resulting paper as they are capable (+ about 10%)

If during the course of an experiment they come to ask a question, I do not blow them off and hurriedly answer the question under my breath while still typing. No, I look at them, turn my chair in their direction, ask them to have a seat, and engage them in conversation. Then…I ask a few simple questions to see if they already have a solution to the problem but are too scared to tell me what it is. If this does not solve the problem, then I walk into lab with them and help them fix the problem.

Above everything else, I never jerk around with a students time.

I am sure this all sounds nice and easy, but I will give a specific example of two of my best students that happened to be working with me at the same time (and conveniently are both doctors now in their residencies!).

One of them was extremely intuitive. She would be able to take even the most cryptic or patchy information and extrapolate precisely what she was to do. She ended up only coming for help when there was an equipment failure or she had sabotaged something in the testing room to screw with me. I found her probably the easiest student I have to date worked with, because I was able to communicate with her in the way I am most comfortable. But she was hard for me to deal with because her curiosity would get the better of her and I would catch a lot of crap from her if she was not satisfied with an answer. A simple answer often turned into a hour long discussion until she was satisfied with the answer. I learned from this student that I had to bring my A game when mentoring students, they are capable of demanding it of me and calling me out any and all BS on my part if I try to fake my way through it.

The other student was anything but intuitive. She demanded precise, crystal clear protocols, and for me to demonstrate everything for her specifically before she started. Her work was impeccable, except when I screwed up the instructions. Then it was awful. Which is to say, my explanations were awful. I had a very hard time communicating with this student. Conversation was easy, but for research ideas I think in an absent minded professor kind of way and often jump from A directly to Q and then back to B when giving instructions. She demanded I not only follow the ABCs, but that Aa, Aaa, and Aaa also be covered, meticulously, on the way. This is very difficult for me because this level of detail is not the level I tend to communicate at. She taught me an important lesson and I will never forget it: I need to raise my game when training students. If they do not understand it is, by and large, my fault-not theirs.

Now both of these students have 3 papers with me and I wish I could have them back to help me set up a lab when I get an assistant professorship. I consider them my little problem children, but I think it is for that reason I look back at that mentorship relationship fondly. Neither one of them made it easy on me, and I am sure I was a holy terror for them, but we did great work together.

TL;DR Mentoring is not just hard, it is very hard. It demands a lot out of the student and a lot out of the mentor. In my way of thinking, if you think of the results of a mentor-mentor relationship in terms of your future is in their hands, you will work a lot harder to make sure you both are on the same page than if you view them as expandable. It is never okay to take advantage of a student in any way. Their time is invaluable, and they deserve your deepest respect. Perhaps as mentors we would be well informed to try to earn theirs.


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