Choosing a Good Mentor for Scientists

By Joanne Kamens

Choosing-a-good-mentor-for-scientistsA scientist-in-training will spend 10 or more years with a small number of formal advisors learning how to be a scientist. It is shocking how little pre-work most PhD students and postdocs do to ensure the advisors they choose will be ones that help them succeed after the training period. While there are many aspects to choosing the right labs (see my webinar (updated link from 2020) on this topic), for this second entry in the “Mentoring for Scientists Series”, let’s focus on how to choose an advisor/principal investigator (PI) that will also serve as a good mentor. To read more about what makes a good mentor, see the previous post in this series.

Check out Joanne's Reddit AMA

Different types of mentors for grad school vs. postdoc

Choosing an advisor to complete a successful PhD is different from choosing a lab for postdoctoral work. However, selecting a lab with a PI who is a good mentor is important in both cases. As a PhD student you need to learn how to be a scientist. Your PI should be the kind of mentor that will teach you how to: interpret data, solve research problems, develop general technical proficiency, communicate your work, maintain ethical standards and interact professionally with other scientists. The specific research area is not as important as choosing a supportive, positive role model.

By contrast, as a postdoc, you should choose a field that you may want to work on in your future career, so the research topic will be more important. In addition, it is crucial that you choose an advisor that will support your growth in your science career. Will you be given opportunities to learn and practice successful grant writing, lab budgeting, equipment acquisition, public speaking and personnel management?  If you are thinking about a non-academic path, will the PI support this path and help you pursue any career alternative?

Listen to our podcast interview with Harvard Medical School researcher Connie Cepko to learn about her mentoring style.

How can I find out if an advisor is a good mentor?

You have to ask a lot of questions. Personality and style conflicts are a common reason for scientists to change labs  do as much as you can to ensure a good fit in advance. When a lab is interviewing you, you are also interviewing the lab to find a good “fit” and to ensure the PI will be a good role model and teacher. Do you admire her management style? Does he have ethical behavior? Does the lab encourage diversity? Knowing your own priorities will help in determining a good fit.

Here are just a few suggestions for determining whether an advisor will be a good mentor:

  • Spend time with the potential advisor and don’t be shy about asking hard questions.

  • Talk to as many lab members as possible. Try to get them in a setting out of the lab (coffee, lunch or beer) and in 1:1 conversations. This creates a level of familiarity and confidentiality to ensure more honest answers.

  • Ask people who work in the labs next door for their opinions. They will often have good observations and be less inhibited in sharing concerns.

  • Ask alumni of the lab. Most labs have websites listing alumi and it is easy to use publication records, university websites, ResearchGate and LinkedIn to find past lab members. Most scientists love to talk about their past lab experiences and will be willing to talk by phone. Don’t use email to get information if you can help it.

  • Observe as much as you can in person. Rotate in the lab, if possible. Attend a lab meeting. Spend some time hanging out with members of the lab. It is a warning sign if the PI does not welcome you to visit and spend time with everyone.

Additionally, if you are looking for more resources to help you choose a good mentor, I have provided a downloadable PDF at the end of this blog post. This document includes a list of questions to ask your potential advisors and other related resources.

Check Out Angela Depace's Talk on "Precision and Plasticity in Mentoring"

Don’t ignore warning signs

If lab members, neighbors or alumni give you information about the PI that concerns you, don’t just brush this away. Many scientists think, “Oh, but that won’t happen to me – I am different.”  Unfortunately, a bad mentor can be bad news for anyone. Try to speak to them more than once to get a full picture and listen for hints at the same concerns from multiple people. Listen to what they say, and what they don’t say. Scientists that are having a good experience will be quick to say so, but scientists that are struggling may hedge on their answers to your questions. Consider reading Toxic Academic Mentors by @drmellivora, an excellent blog post about workplace bullying featured on the always interesting Tenure, She Wrote blog. Unfortunately, academic bullies are hard to stop  the best thing to do is not go into their labs in the first place.

The good news

There are many excellent mentors out there. With some good pre-work you can find a lab that will deserve your hard work and an advisor that will be a lifelong partner in developing your career in science. 

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Read other posts in our Science Mentors series:

Topics: Science Careers, Mentoring for Scientists, Early Career Researcher

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