19 thoughts on “From your perspective, what are essential characteristics of a good mentoring relationship?

  1. 1. Mutual respect and treating each other respectfully at all times.
    2. Open and clear communication. Both ways, mentor to student and student to mentor.
    3. Listening. Both ways.
    4. Having common goals.
    5. Having clear, agreed upon expectations. Again, both ways.

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    • Ityra gives such a good answer I can barely think of what to add. But I would emphasize the two-way communication; a mentor who is truly invested in the success of the student; a student who considers what particular things he wants to learn from the mentor he chooses.

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      • I agree w/ all of the above and would just emphasize (a) student-centered mentoring – critical to a constructive experience for the student and much harder to achieve than it perhaps sounds, and (b) ongoing critical reflection on the part of the student – about her goals, her initiative, and what she wants/needs from the mentor.

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  2. I also think Ityra’s list is excellent. I would add:

    -Regular communication – great communication does no good if it doesn’t happen consistently and often. A sit-down, face-to-face discussion should happen weekly at least.

    -Clear criteria for what the student should be doing to succeed. This is somewhat included in clear, agreed upon expectations, and I think it’s much more difficult than it might sound in a graduate career. But there are things that can be done in that direction: actual discussion about hours worked in the lab. Regular (reasonable) weekly goals for experiments that work towards larger goals. Regular written feedback on where the student is excelling and areas that could use improvement. Certainly no one method is perfect and what works best could vary from lab to lab. However, most students I know operate on “keeping the PI happy” with no clear direction; this is extremely subjective and involves a lot of guessing. I think improvement could be made if the PI was willing to take the time and initiative to be more clear on those expectations.

    -A balance of direction and independence. I think I’m very fortunate here. My PI is fantastic at making sure I’m working out my own experiments, reading the literature and learning how to lay the groundwork for a hypothesis, etc, but at the same time pointing me in productive directions and making sure I don’t spend too much time on a crazy goose chase. This is another area that I think can potentially be very difficult – it’s a fine line to walk. Yet I also think it’s extremely important: the PhD is essentially where the training wheels are coming off for a young researcher, and removing direction and support too soon can be equally as disastrous as not allowing the student to think for themselves.

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    • Having been in a field where towards the end of graduate school I was largely doing data manipulation on my own at the computer, I certainly saw some contrasts between a lot and too little direction. Earlier in grad school, while working on my professor’s projects directly, there had been lots of conversations. But when those articles were out, my committee asked for another paper, topic unspecified, to graduate — though the earlier stated dissertation requirements were met, there was a feeling I hadn’t spent enough time, and that two of the earlier articles were closely related. Which left me looking for a topic to put out an article in about 6 months, with my primary adviser at the time having vanished to New York on sabbatical. I eventually ended up dropping the first line of research I had tried to pursue on my own, going off and singing in an opera out of frustration for a month without anyone clearly noticing, and then finding a quick finishing topic. So there was decent ending, but the request for another publication with no clear adviser or topic made for a surreal year.

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      • Your story would be funnier if you had joined a traveling circus during the last year of your PhD program, rather than merely an opera production. 🙂 Glad to hear it worked out well in the end.

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  3. The key principle that I think is currently missing (or, at least, not consistently upheld) in graduate student mentorship is the principle of informed choice. Just like human research subjects are guaranteed the right to informed consent before volunteering for a study, graduate students should also have a right to make an informed choice of mentor with a clear understanding of the mentor’s expectations, and what the mentor is offering, before choosing. This could mean allowing entering graduate students ample time during their first year to get to know the professors and learn about their reputations, or it could mean enforcing standards for the clarity and completeness of the information that students must be provided with prior to choosing a mentor. Alternately, it could simply mean shifting the responsibility for the student’s understanding of what they are signing up for onto mentors, and giving mentors a strong incentive to make sure nothing will come as a big surprise to the student later on. But in some way graduate programs should really ensure that all graduate students have a real opportunity to make an informed choice of mentor, because the most important determinants of the quality of the mentorship relationship are usually whether the student and mentor are well matched in the first place, and whether they are “on the same page” from the beginning about what the plan is for the student’s graduate program.

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    • There really aught to be minimum standards that graduate programs must meet to ensure adequate conditions for informed mentor matching. Ideally, all PhD programs should allow at least one semester of lab rotations in the first year. But when that is not possible, a type of information that would be of tremendous usefulness to entering students when they are making this choice, would be a complete list (or, at least, an unbiased sample) of the names and contact info of all the current, and former, mentees of the prospective mentors the student is considering. (The list should include, not just those who completed the PhD, but also those who “mastered out”, changed labs, or dropped out.) Communication with these individuals would greatly accelerate the entering student’s understanding of each professor’s mentorship style.

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      • I agree with the “informed choice” principle for graduate student selection of their mentors. While there are several good ideas here for approaching that, lab rotations for first year graduate students would seem to be the strongest of these approaches, and has other benefits as well. I would advocate for lab rotations for the entire first year, not just the first semester. Then, students would start their second year in their home lab, having made a choice which is fully informed by their experiences. I would think that this would be supported in any program which sees its graduate students primarily as students to be educated, rather than simply as sources of inexpensive labor. Through lab rotations, students can have learning experiences in diverse labs, thus experiencing a variety of mentoring styles, as well as diverse laboratory cultures. They can, in effect, try on relationships with different mentors, thus preparing them to make a selection (at the end of their first year) which will be a good match. One of the added benefits is that students will also experience a variety of research initiatives and methods, and their selection of their eventual home lab will be based on firm knowledge of research content as well. Mentors will also benefit from the opportunity to try on working with the student before committing to a longer term arrangement. As a professor, I know that a mentor-student relationship which doesn’t work, is harmful to the professor as well as to the student. With lab rotations for first year students, the match can be improved, and everybody wins!

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    • One particular type of information that is especially critical for students to know in advance of joining a lab is the mentor’s non-employment labor requirements necessary to receive satisfactory academic evaluation, such as in “the apprenticeship model of graduate education”. Large requirements of general laboratory labor can come as a surprise to a student who is not their professor’s employee, especially if different from the work plan that was discussed beforehand; and if this labor conflicts with completing tasks essential for the student’s success, the consequences for the student can be serious and lasting even after leaving that lab. The academic “apprenticeship” can be a wonderful, mutually beneficial, arrangement when it is voluntary, but when it comes as a surprise, students can get trapped performing long hours of involuntary and uncompensated labor at great cost to themselves, enforced by threat to their academic evaluation (and therefore their degree and career), a situation in which the analogy of grad students to slaves becomes particularly apt. Given the coerciveness of this potential outcome, it is not reasonable for the burden to be entirely on the student to try to elicit this information; professors should have a responsibility to provide a clear and accurate explanation of their apprenticeship labor requirements to each student before they join the lab.

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      • Expecting grad students to devote nearly all waking hours to working for their professor is especially inappropriate within programs that do not provide students with an adequate funding “safety net”. In this situation students may need to devote large amounts of time to fund seeking (i.e. fellowship applications) or working for pay (i.e. teaching assistantships). When professors impose labor demands that conflict with student efforts to stay funded, this can risk driving the student into long-term financial destitution or forcing them right out of grad school.

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    • The choice of mentor is the most important decision a PhD student makes in determining the success of their PhD program, because the mentor can have great power over the student if they choose to use it.

      Policies that support grad students’ opportunity to make a well-informed choice of mentor, would not only benefit grad students, they would also benefit most faculty, since most professors practice good quality mentorship and would therefore be favored in the healthy competition these policies would generate to attract the best students by demonstrating the quality of one’s mentorship.

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      • As a professor and researcher of several decades, I have tried hard to be a good mentor to the students I work with. In fact, this is among my highest priorities — and especially so, as I approach the winding down of my working life. I do think that most professors try to be good mentors, but, unfortunately, some do not (as they have other primary interests) — and the academic incentive systems do not always support putting the educational needs of students first. Promoting informed choice for students (via lab rotations and other approaches) would help to reward the good mentorship which I strive for anyway, so I would welcome it…

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  4. Everyone’s comments have really hit the nail on the head! As a new graduate student who has had the opportunity to work with a few different advisers now, I agree wholeheartedly that mutual respect, open lines of communication, and established expectations from both parties really makes a difference.

    One thing that hasn’t been explicitly mentioned yet but that I think is extremely important is encouragement!

    My best advisers have been the ones that have provided support and encouragement in times of success, as well as, if not especially, during times of struggle. Great advisers are cognizant of the signs of physical or emotional distress in their grad students, and they don’t assume that the only students who need help are those who ask for it. At times, I’ve noticed there’s this hidden culture/belief in some STEM fields that the graduate experience is sort of this “rite of passage”, and that if you’re not “busy” and “stressed” all the time, you’re not doing it right. If a graduate student is falling behind on their work, an adviser might conclude they’re being lazy, or there’s a lack of commitment there. I’ve noticed that most of time, the student is just unclear about what to do next, or is uncomfortable taking the next step for one reason or another, and that something as simple as a few words of reassurance, enthusiasm, and optimism could make all the difference.

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  5. I agree with most of what has already been said, and I would just like to add one point, related to fostering independence: a young researcher should not be afraid to [respectfully] disagree with their mentor on the interpretation of results or planning of new experiments (keeping in mind of course the long-term project goals). In fact, constructive discussions are integral to the scientific process, and this cannot happen if everything the mentor says is taken without question. My first year, I was hesitant to develop my own conclusions or plan new experiments, because I was new to the field of work and inexperienced. But afterwards I became more independent and found that playing the devil’s advocate and actively thinking about alternative, contrary explanations was very fruitful to the development of my work, even if my alternative explanations were eventually unsubstantiated.

    (as a side note, I truly enjoy the fact that STEM is one of the few career fields in which disagreeing with your boss is not necessarily a bad thing!)

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  6. It’s time we had a widely agreed upon code of ethics for the mentorship of graduate students, and strong incentives to adhere to at least minimum standards for good practice.

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  7. I am concerned about the issue of graduate students being bullied and want to advocate for a mentoring relationships that helps guide the graduate student towards realizing his or her aspirations without harsh treatment or victimizing

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  8. To sum it up in one point: advisers who treat a PhD as an education, not as cheap labor.

    I agree with many of the posts above. Many advisers abuse their power over graduate students and of course there is no oversight whatsoever. As a graduate student, there is nothing you can do because this person has unilateral control about whether you get your degree or not (and in how long). This kind of behavior should not be tolerated anywhere.

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