The Mentor-Mentee Dance

Your success as a graduate student depends on the quality of your mentorship. Often times, we choose a mentor based on our interests, or just to get into a lab that has money. Choosing a lab should be meticulously planned, the same way a great dance involves a planned order of steps.  Here is a quick guide to help you plan the steps you should take before you dance:

  • Do not choose a lab solely based on your interests. Many students go into Ph.D. training with a specific disease, or area of interest they want to study, but this limits the pool of mentors they consider for their training. Remember that you are getting a Ph.D. and anyone who graduates with a degree in neuroscience will have the same transferrable skills, e.g. project management, as the person who finished with a degree in biochemistry. Yes, finding something that interests you is important, but do not limit yourself to a specific area within the field right off the bat. This may not be true for people pursuing a post-doc because they should target their training for learning innovative ideas and techniques that will help them get their next job. Post-docs already have the skills needed for a Ph.D.; their goal is to advance beyond that. You can learn more about choosing a post-doc position here.

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  • Do pay attention in your lab rotations. Rotations are where you learn about the mentor and the lab, do not disregard the importance of this opportunity. Rotating can help you judge a mentor’s interactions with their trainees. Access to your mentor is important! You will need your mentor’s guidance although you want to be as independent as possible. The Ph.D. is a training process and you cannot get adequate training without good mentorship (See section 3ii for more).
  • Do look for a mentor that has strong scientific abilities and can adequately mentor you. You not only want to have a good scientist, but also a good mentor and these two things are not mutually exclusive. The problem is determining if a potential mentor has these two qualities.
  • You should conduct a PubMed search on your potential mentor to give you an idea of the lab’s quality and productivity. You not only want a lab that is friendly to you, but also one that will help you graduate with skills needed to conquer the world. Remember to focus on journal articles and not review articles for a sense of the research quality.
  • Here are good ways of finding out about a mentor’s scientific ability:
  • You should “interview” their current trainees and anyone who knows the lab. People are usually more than happy to tell you how they feel about a lab. However, make sure you ask multiple people before you make your decision. Person A may give different information compared to Person B, or C. This information is like preliminary data and you should decide the subsequent steps based on the information you have gathered.
  • You should try to read their CV. If you dare to ask for your mentor’s CV, good for you! If not, try a google search (I once found my former advisor’s CV on google).
  • You should look up their H-index to give you an idea of how their work ranks in the field. This is especially important for people thinking of doing a post-doc, or potentially going into academia. Just keep in mind that H-indices are not good measures of younger professors.
  • You should know about their funds. Funding is important, especially for a post-doc position. Do not rotate in a lab that has no funds; it is a waste of time and effort. Only consider doing this if there is an opportunity for collaboration with another lab that can support you. Additionally, be aware that if your mentor has not previously secured NIH funding, they will not be able to solely sponsor you if you apply for graduate or post-doc fellowships- you will require a strong co-sponsor in that case. Finally, know up front to what degree your potential advisor expects you to fund yourself through teaching and/or fellowships.
  • Here are ways to learn about mentorship capabilities: 
  • You want to know how supportive the potential mentor is in and outside of the lab. Again, ask the students this kind of information. Your lab is your second home so you want to make sure it will be a supportive environment that encourages balance in your social and family life. You also want to be able to enhance your Ph.D. training, which means that you should be supported in your efforts to do tasks that will put you on the path to your career e.g. conferences, seminars, classes and others.
  • You want a mentor that has a balanced amount of graduate students and post-docs. This could tell you if the potential advisor wants to devote time to mentor you. Remember that post-docs are, typically, more independent than graduate students and having more post-docs may be a signal that the advisor does not want to spend as much time mentoring. I know of a lab that only accepts post-docs, and while it does not mean the mentor is bad, it implies to you that the mentor likely wants their lab to run more on the hands-off spectrum of their involvement.
  • You want to know the success rate of their previous trainees. A good mentor will have trainees that have gone to be successful whether in their own labs or in industry. You can find out this information in the mentor’s biosketch and this information is usually included in an NIH grant application. If you dare to ask the mentor, go ahead.
  • You may want to avoid big labs. If you want more attention from your mentor, small labs are better. Yet, post-docs or senior students in large labs can provide you with technical expertise and give you feedbacks about your experiments/presentations. Either way, the quality of mentorship you get from your advisor should be of upmost importance.
  • You want an advisor that is easy to talk to because you want to be able to communicate your ideas without fear. Remember that obtaining your Ph.D. is all about your training. If you feel afraid to share your thoughts, your growth will be stifled. I have seen labs in which there was a lot of yelling by the advisor that ultimately created a toxic environment. I have also seen a relationship where the student and the mentee often go under a tree to write and share ideas. Personally, I once had a one-on-one lab meeting with my previous advisor at a restaurant. While you do not have to hold hands and sing “Kum ba yah” with your advisor, you want to be comfortable around them to ensure the best scientific exchanges.
  • You want an advisor that will give credit when due. Your contribution to a lab is important and should be acknowledged. Simple. If you have a chance to attend a talk of theirs, pay attention to the language they use in the presentation. “I did this,” versus, “My talented graduate student…” is a red flag that this may be a person who puts ego before acknowledgment.

You may not be able to tick off every point in this article, but make sure you identify the important points based on how you want to shape your training. While ticking off the list, remember that young faculties will not have the same experience or level of achievements as the tenured-tracked or well advanced-scientists. However, they do offer the advantage of being highly motivated to publish and have their labs succeed. A smart, young faculty will realize that your success is theirs.

Your training is about you and you should initiate meetings to share ideas with your mentor; you should be proactive! You are the lead, so dance with your best interest in mind.

The original article can be found here and you can read more here.  The picture used in this article was found here.

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Maryam Alapa

I love science and enjoy teaching, research (mostly) and writing. I consider myself a lady that has been shaped by two countries: Nigeria and America. I spent almost half my life in Nigeria and moved, permanently, to the US at the age of 13. I attended East Orange Campus High School and went on to Montclair State University for both Bachelor's degree (Chemistry) and Master's degree (Chemistry/Biochemistry). I am currently a 5th-year Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University - NJMS. My dream is to have a positive impact on science and research education in Nigeria and surrounding countries.

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