9 thoughts on “Which resources do you wish the NSF would provide to help an advisor fulfill his/her role as mentor?

  1. These are important and challenging questions that NSF is asking on this forum. Perhaps NSF should consider advertising the forum more widely to graduate students, post-docs, graduate degree holders, and faculty and administrators involved in graduate education, so as to elicit more input and ideas and generate more discussion.

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  2. I wish that the federal scientific and educational agencies would create, and promote, a code of ethics for the mentorship of graduate students. Much of what goes into ethical and high quality mentorship is not obvious, so some way of conveying the key principles to mentors is necessary. Professors should get certification to mentor graduate students by passing a test on this ethical code. The code of ethics should include principles dealing with: enabling graduate students to make informed choices about entering into mentorship relationships with accurate and complete information; the mentor’s fiduciary responsibility to act benevolently toward the student given the great power imbalance and inherent vulnerability of students; equity and equality; giving credit appropriately; fair labor and compensation practices; etc.

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  3. The speaker in the following video makes a strong argument in favor of requiring certification for mentorship (starting at 10:50). He points out we require certification to use vertebrate animals or human subjects in research, and at some institutions for the use of many different types of potentially risky research materials and research methods. It is a glaring inconsistency that something as important, and ethically risky, as mentoring trainees does not require certification. I couldn’t agree more. Our failure to take this seriously is badly undermining the training of a portion of the next generation of scientists.

    http://www.sfn.org/Careers-and-Training/Higher-Education-and-Training/Annual-Departments-and-Programs-Conference/2013-Conference/Speaker6_Video_Zigmond

    One way of keeping mentorship training and certification low burden would be to only require it once, unless a mentor shows evidence of mentorship problems, in which case, re-certification should be required.

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  4. NSF should put minimum standards in place to ensure that all NSF funded graduate students are in graduate programs that provide each student with a reasonable opportunity to make an informed choice of mentor. Graduate programs could do this by:
    1) allowing students an ample period of lab rotations during their first year, or
    2) providing incoming students with facilitated access to information about the mentorship styles and expectations of each potential mentor through: a) a mentorship philosophy statement written by each potential mentor, and b) the contact information of all current and former mentees of each potential mentor (so the student can get the mentee perspective on each mentor’s style through private communications with an unbiased sample of those who have experienced it), or
    3) a different approach designed by the graduate program that convinces NSF reviewers that all graduate students in the program are given an adequate opportunity to understand what they are signing up for when they choose a mentor.

    All students should also have a right to get something in writing describing the course of education they entering into with their mentor and its requirements. This could take the form of a course description, a mentorship agreement, or this information could be incorporated into an IDP. This system would make misunderstandings and unexpected changes of requirements much less common.

    These policies are especially important in any context in which graduate students may be required to provide non-employment labor of significant value to their mentor (or labor in excess of contracted work hours). It is basic human rights that graduate students should be provided with an explicit explanation of these volunteer labor requirements in advance of becoming heavily invested with a certain mentor (and possibly closing off other options). No need for mentors to predict every detail, but those who might use any element of an apprenticeship approach to education (i.e. learning through labor) should be required to provide, in the initial agreement, a general description of the types and amounts of labor that the student may be considered responsible for, and the types of conditions under which the requirements might change.

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  5. In any field in which the mentor typically benefits economically, or in their career advancement, from the student’s work (such as through authorship on the student’s publications), the conflict of interest this creates between the mentor’s role as educator, and their role as supervisor, needs to be corrected. One way of doing this would be to give a different professor, who has no conflict of interest (i.e. not a close friend, relative, or collaborator of the mentor or the student, and not a coauthor or advisor to the student’s research; someone with “no skin in the game”), the power to adjust the mentor’s academic evaluation of the student positively, but not negatively. For example, in a graduate program in which the student is given a pass/fail grade on their research each semester, if the mentor should ever give the student a “fail”, it would not go on the student’s transcript unless the other professor approves it. The other professor would have a responsibility to get both the mentor’s and the student’s explanations of what happened before making a decision, and would have the option to change the grade to a “pass”. The other professor would also have the ability to serve as an alternate signatory to the student’s thesis or dissertation if any of the faculty on the student’s committee should refuse to sign without a convincingly valid educational reason for their refusal. Under this system it would be much harder for mentors to inappropriately intimidate students, because the student would know that, in a worst case scenario, they will have an opportunity to explain their side of things to someone with no economic interest in the outcome and whose explicit role is to be available, if needed, to protect the quality of the student’s education from abuses of power. I think that NSF should require that the graduate programs of NSF funded graduate students must have some such system in place to protect students from inappropriate uses of the power of academic evaluation to achieve economic, or other invalid, purposes.

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