22 thoughts on “What are some advantages or disadvantages of formal mentor-mentee relationships?

  1. Disadvantages: it’s difficult to start a formal mentor/mentee relationship, especially as the mentee, using deliberate strategies. They seem very weighty time-wise and emotionally-wise, and thus scary to both parties.

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  2. I am curious about the context here. Are we talking about formal mentor/mentee relationships between thesis mentor and graduate student or formal mentor/mentee relationships between graduate students and other mentors?

    For student/thesis mentor some advantages are: the student has someone who has a vested interest in the student’s career progress, the student has help with his/her research, the student receives training from the mentor, and the mentor has the student to further his/her research program. Some disadvantages are: if the student/thesis mentor relationship does not develop well, then the student and mentor can be stuck in a relationship that isn’t working for the duration of the student’s thesis research. There are options to switch labs, but often there is a small window when that can be done and it can really set a student back. Also, if the thesis mentor and mentee have vastly different communication, learning, or working styles, that can create problems for both parties that often disproportionally hinder the student because of the power dynamic of the thesis mentor/mentee relationship.

    For other mentoring relationships some advantages are: students can gain a different perspective than they get from their formal thesis mentor and often extra training in areas that their thesis mentor may lack expertise in. For example, I am a woman and my thesis mentor is male. I have other female mentors at my university that I have discussed family planning with, because I feel like they would have a better perspective about how maternity leave could disrupt my research and what I can do to minimize potential disruptions. Some disadvantages: finding other mentoring relationships can be difficult and some thesis mentors may question why a trainee needs additional mentoring.

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    • I actually wrote a post on this last year, and upon some reflection, I think that the organic, mentoring moments are those that make the most impact. It’s not just about setting aside “mentoring time” or “mentoring moments,” but in learning from the exposure to good (and sometimes bad) ideas, processes, and strategies that we all see in research.

      http://www.natehough-snee.org/2013/10/mentoring-in-research-early-career.html

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    • “Some disadvantages are: if the student/thesis mentor relationship does not develop well, then the student and mentor can be stuck in a relationship that isn’t working for the duration of the student’s thesis research. There are options to switch labs, but often there is a small window when that can be done and it can really set a student back.”

      That is a very important point. There are a number of factors that can create barriers to changing labs:
      1) For students who have already put in a lot of work on their current dissertation research topic, starting over in a new lab would mean losing a lot of progress toward their degree, and toward their professional record of accomplishment.
      2) A student can’t change labs until they have found a new lab to switch to. For students with complex matching needs, searching for, and making arrangements with, a new mentor can be a time-consuming process, which has to be handled right or the student risks jumping “out of the frying pan and into the fire”. If the student’s current mentor is driving them to work extreme hours, this can make it nearly impossible for the student to carve out time for this search process, delaying or preventing a much-needed change of labs.
      3) I am aware of two cases in which a student who had changed labs was targeted with an apparent retribution attempt by their former professor. Although neither attempt at retribution was successful at seriously harming the student, these stories still contribute to an atmosphere of fear in which students may be afraid to change labs.

      For the above reasons, grad students do not always have a way of changing labs when they need to without risking their degree, and therefore, their entire career. When these barriers to changing labs are combined with inadequate opportunity to make an informed choice of lab in the first place (such as in PhD programs that do not allow lab rotations during the first year) this can create a serious trap for graduate students.

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      • Many academics seem to believe that the “free market” of grad students choosing mentors and changing labs if they want to, is adequate to ensure quality mentorship, and that no other incentives are needed. This seems like nonsense to me. Where’s the free part of this supposedly free market? The only graduate programs in which this could possibly be true are those that take strong measures to ensure that students have a fair chance to get matched up right in the first place with clear understandings in place, and facilitate changes of lab when they are needed.

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      • Some barriers to changing mentors/labs may be unavoidable (e.g., leaving behind work already done), but for programs to also allow unnecessary barriers (e.g., culture of faculty retribution or revenge) is really shameful. In have seen an egregious case of faculty fury and acting out directed at a student who made a change. Fortunately, the new mentor was both senior and savvy at department politics and so able to cool the situation for protecting the student. Assuming that the student is not making a change lightly, programs should facilitate changes of mentor when necessary (e.g., relative to the student’s educational goals or progress). This is one reason why a code of ethics for mentors/mentoring (as mentioned, I think in a different post) is also necessary.

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      • “A student can’t change labs until they have found a new lab to switch to.”
        Another approach for programs to facilitate the student making a change (when needed for educational purpose), is to allow a transition period during which a temporary mentor provides oversight as the student works on making arrangements for a new permanent mentor — a bit like a lab rotation between “permanent” mentors. This is not always needed, but may sometimes be useful in allowing the student to expeditiously exit a situation which is not working. In any case, this should be for a maximum of one semester, but with flexibility for it to be shorter, once the new mentorship arrangement is determined.

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      • Having an actual policy about how to go about changing labs of advisers would make sense — partially to make it clear to grad students and faculty that is not a failure but a natural part of grad school, as one gets more information about the situation and one’s interests. Destigmatizing adviser change might help prevent retaliation.

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      • I like profforlong’s idea on Jan. 2 at 12:26pm. We must remember that it is often the student who needs a change of labs the most who faces the greatest barriers to changing.

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    • I can also imagine that talks involving taking leave could be harder to discuss with a thesis mentor who was relying on one for collaboration, part of an experiment or other work. In some ways, the thesis mentoring role and mentoring on how to successfully interact with and get through the program may sometimes be in conflict with each other.

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  3. One disadvantage of the way mentorship is usually structured at present, in which one professor has tremendous power over each graduate student and simultaneously has a tremendous need for labor to maintain their lab and advance their research program, is the conflict of interest this creates between the professor’s labor needs and their role as an educator. I have seen very creative rationalizations used to justify requiring a student (who was not the professor’s employee) to work long hours on whatever the professor needed done, even though it was unrelated to the student’s educational and career goals and not consistent with the understanding that the student and professor had originally agreed on about what the student’s research focus was to be. The fact that the professor only has to persuade himself that this is justified makes it a bit too easy.

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    • One idea for at least partially correcting this conflict of interest would be for the grading of the student’s research each semester to be done by a professor who has no conflict of interest (ie. not a collaborator or close friend of their mentor) on the advice of the mentor. That would make it a lot harder for mentors to seriously intimidate grad students, because the student would know that the mentor does not have sole discretion over what goes on the student’s transcript.

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      • From a faculty perspective, I think this would be both difficult and helpful. Such a system would promote faculty discussion regarding standards of mentoring — perhaps difficult, as conflicts of interest and inconsistent practices are exposed. Overall, I suspect that such discussions would lead to mentoring practices which are fair to students, and also effective for advancing program goals for research training excellence.

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      • Given the conflict of interest, the most appropriate amount of power for mentors to have over grad students, in the way graduate programs are structured, is definitely not the maximum possible amount of power. At the very least, in the case of novice mentors, the student’s grade should be in the hands of a more experienced professor with a demonstrated track record of student success.

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      • There are graduate programs that come close to this ideal. I know of a program where the lead advisor of the program is the instructor-of-record for all students’ research experiences, and therefore handles the grading, although students’ research may be directly supervised by any professor in the program. The grades are entirely based on input from the student’s supervisor, but theoretically, the lead advisor could give a different grade.

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  4. As some comments on this forum have already suggested, the communications and agreements between mentor and mentee prior to a mentee joining a mentor’s lab, involve a substantial element of what economists call “moral hazard”. Although the mentor is the experienced professional in the interaction, and holds most of the power, they don’t have a very strong incentive to achieve “crystal clarity” with the student, because the student bears most of the risk in the event of a misunderstanding. (i.e. The mentor will later be able to enforce their own interpretation of what was agreed to, if the two have different understandings of it.) In fact, sometimes mentors may actually have an incentive *not* to be perfectly clear, if that helps them recruit a student they want.

    Meanwhile, the entering student is, by definition, a novice, so they may not be fully aware of this risk, and might not take as much action as they should to achieve clear understandings. Even when the student is trying hard to get clarity, the tight deadlines, lack of information, and lack of negotiating power they are dealing with can make it impossible. Given these circumstances, it should come as no surprise that a substantial portion of the arrangements made between mentors and mentees ultimately result in misunderstandings that are seriously detrimental for the student.

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    • When the incentives are wrong, no ill intent is necessary to produce unethical behavior; one has to go out of one’s way to avoid it. Given that, the fact that most mentors use their power over students wisely and benevolently is a great credit to them, and the fact that a minority do not is unsurprising. We need to correct the dysfunctional incentive structures that, at times, give a competitive advantage to those who use problematic mentorship practices, so that treating students appropriately would become the easiest choice to make, and more grad students would benefit from positive and collegial environments for supporting student scholarship.

      I would suggest that NSF consult with economists in market design and matching theory to see if there are ideas for how to better design the grad student mentorship system with more appropriate incentives.

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    • Perhaps what is needed here is credible commitment. The student and mentor should sign a written mentorship agreement, before the start of the mentorship relationship, in which they describe, at least in general terms, the essential components of the plan for the student’s work and mentorship. This would encourage them to achieve a greater degree of specific clarity and mutual agreement from the beginning and would increase the likelihood that the features of the original plan that were most important to each of them continue to be upheld over time. (In the graduate programs where students are afraid to ask for a mentorship agreement because “the student who asks for a written agreement is the student who doesn’t get a mentor”, this problem needs to be corrected.)

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    • I had personal experience with the consequences of the mentor bearing little risk and thus limiting the energy put into making things clear to a student. Of course, I asked my advisor a few times “What do I need to accomplish to get a PhD? What comprises that body of work?”, perhaps the core question. The closest thing to an answer I ever got was “It’s like pornography; I know it when I see it.” Granted my work was interdisciplinary in such a way that made that question very tough to answer. But that’s all the more reason I needed a real answer that I never got. It’s worth noting that he was a nice guy, not trying to be flippant.

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    • One piece of information which might be routinely helpful for people entering a program would the proportion of people who finish their dissertations. I learned part way through my own program that only about 50% were expected to finish, which came as a surprise.

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