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graduate student mentorship

A meeting with one of my clinical mentors yesterday got me thinking about the importance of mentorship in general and, in particular, the importance of mentorship in medical school, which now has me thinking about good mentorship in graduate school.

Graduate school (PhD training) is unique amongst other doctoral training in that the mentor (thesis advisor) plays a central role in one’s training (at least theoretically… see one of my previous posts)–in fact, one’s training is from the mentor very much like a traditional apprenticeship.  So practically, what are we looking for in mentorship from a thesis advisor?  I think that a thesis advisor guides or teaches you:

  1. how to develop scientific problems
  2. how to think about and approach scientific problems
  3. how to solve scientific problems
  4. how to explain/write about your research for others in your field
  5. how to explain/write about your research for others not in your field
  6. some of the unpleasant aspects of academics and science (e.g. politics)
  7. how to circumvent or deal with some of the unpleasant aspects of academics and science (e.g. politics)
  8. things he/she wishes they knew when they were starting out

and finally, the thesis advisor is someone who will promote you and help you get to the next level (e.g. postdoc, faculty job or industry).  Disclaimer: of course, these functions of a devoted mentor in graduate school are predicated on the assumption of an equally devoted graduate student.  I do not believe that it is at all reasonable or fair to expect a thesis advisor to be devoted to a student who does not take his/her graduate studies seriously. 

Anyway, I will group these: #1-3 as how to do good science; #4 & 5 as how to develop good communication skills whether it is related to a paper, editorial or conference; #6-8 as dealing with B.S. in academia and the last point is just looking out and caring for your career.

On teaching you how to do good science:

I’ve never been a big fan of advisors who hold their student’s hand through a PhD.  In some respects, graduate school should be a trial by fire.  I think mistakes are some of the most valuable learning tools ever.  And when your career is riding on how you continue after mistakes, you’d better believe that you will take something–a learning point–away from every mistake.  But there is a fine line between letting a graduate student learn through self-directed learning and neglect.  I’ve seen advisors who “guide” their students with gentle nudges here and there when the student is veering off onto an ill-advised course.  In contrast, I’ve seen advisors who let their students flounder about for years on fishing expeditions that ultimately yield nothing.  I think the ideal is an advisor who let’s you do your thing for reasonable stretches of time (e.g. a month or longer) and then checks in on your progress, but is available in the meantime to talk if you need it.   What you absolutely do not want in graduate school is an advisor who welcomes you to the lab and then stops by to see you four years later to see what you have been up to.  I think that completely defeats the purpose of graduate school.  The reason I harp on this point is because to learn how to do good science, you can either re-invent the wheel and do it entirely on your own–hopefully it doesn’t take you too long–or you can pick up some of tips from your advisor, who is the pro.  It’s really about a solution to your scientific problem, but more so how the solution is arrived at that matters most.  I remember listening to my advisor at some lab meetings giving advice to people on how to progress with their projects and really thinking about how he would come up with his suggestions and the underlying objectives he was getting at.  He was almost always right, but I think his students got more out of the reasoning for his suggestions than the actual solutions to their problems.

On communicating your work to others:

Communicating one’s research to the world is extremely important.  Science is not done in a vacuum and we obviously seek answers to certain questions because someone cares about it.  Otherwise, one’s research would just be an exercise in mental masturbation.  On a more practical level, career promotion, recognition and funding all come through one’s ability to communicate one’s results and the importance of those results.  Writing a scientific manuscript is not an easy task, but gets easier and easier with experience.  However, organization, clarity of thought and expression as well as more subtle issues like citing the proper references and people are not easy skills to master in scientific writing.  A lot of these skills can come from the thesis advisor.  I have worked with scientists who fall into one of two categories: either they write the whole thing for you (sometimes with you sitting there in the room) or they will tear your manuscript up with “track changes” on in your Microsoft Word document file with suggestions like “more in-depth discussion here” or “good place to make this point” or “not necessary–take this sentence out”, etc.  I think I got very little out of my writing experiences where I sat in the room and watched a PI re-write a 25 page draft of my manuscript.  In contrast, after going over my manuscript for the 10th time (c’mon–give me a break already–it was my first one!), you’d better believe I had learned a set of skills that I wouldn’t forget for the next one.

Finally, how to communicate your work also depends on who the audience is.  Yes, yes, this is quite obvious, but actually, much harder than (at least I) expected.  After being in the lab for so long and so much, it is easy to forget that not everyone speaks with the same scientific jargon.  Moreover, there is clearly a spectrum of understanding from the lay-person all the way to the PI who works down the hall on thing else.  Learning how to clearly communicate your work and, again, it’s significance to all of these people is an important skill that comes from the opportunities the advisor gives and then offers guidance on. 

On dealing with the negative aspects of academia:

Academia is a rude-awakening for many graduate students. I think many people go into graduate school to do work with the potential of making novel findings of significance and perhaps making impact on the lives of others. It is an admirable goal, which by its virtue also brings to mind a collegial and ethical atmosphere, conducive for collaboration towards a greater good: everyone working together to better mankind. And then, you get to graduate school and need someone to do a small task—but critical to your work—which will take about 10 minutes of their time. Sure that person will do it, but not unless you promise to list them as an author on your paper—and all subsequent papers that arise from your use of that information. For 10 minutes of work?!? Does this person know that I and the other authors have put in about 2 years of work? Does this person even care? If someone has you in a tight spot, they will likely squeeze you for 100X more than what you are asking for. Then you request information from a publically funded open-access database, but the caretakers of the database (who are specifically paid to do this) will put you through the ringer with paper work then have you wait about 9 months for a 5 minute database search, unless you repeatedly tell them how great they are and then list them as an author on your paper for doing their job. Again, are you serious? Serious as a heart attack.

Yes we are all working together for a common good but the means towards that end are sometimes questionable, and sometimes plain and simply unethical. Academia is filled with egos and people who are (like you and me) struggling to make it. This is an absolutely inescapable fact, which happens at every institution. These conditions necessitate frequent stroking of egos, to a sometimes disgusting extent, and then getting taken advantage of when you are most vulnerable—and this is the best case scenario. And as a graduate student, you are the most vulnerable. I found these aspects of academia in graduate school really tough to swallow. Same is true for others I have talked to. The problem is that, as a graduate student (in truth at most levels of academia as well), you have no recourse. I stress this point because it is hard not to become cynical and disillusioned—and over time, to become the same as those people. This is where an advisor’s guidance can be really helpful. For one, a graduate student’s adjustment to these aspects of academia can be greatly facilitated by an advisor, who can help you to navigate these somewhat touchy areas, and when necessary, take over for you. Moreover, these aspects of academia exist—it is a fact—so why not learn about and hear about them? I’ve found over the years that the more I learn about all of the ethically “questionable” problems that others have had to deal with, the better that I am prepared for these problems when I encounter them. And certainly, I believe that a mentor has an important role in giving their graduate students straight-up, honest advise this aspect of academia.

On promoting your career:

I wrote about this with regard to medical student mentorship a couple of days, and it is really no different in graduate school. At such an early stage of training, one needs as many opportunities to flourish as possible. This comes through opportunities to participate in different projects at authorship level, within the lab and through external collaborations as well. Presentations are another great way that advisors promote graduate student development. There are some labs where the advisor, when invited to give a talk, will ask a student in the lab working on that subject to give the talk instead. These are really golden opportunities that show your academic community of peers and colleagues that your advisor thinks highly enough of you to send you in his/her place. I have known a few graduate students with such advisors, and they are all the better off for it—before finishing their PhDs, they already have established name recognition and respect in their fields. And clearly, there are other ways through which a thesis advisor can give a graduate student opportunities to shine but I will not dwell further on this topic. Finally, a graduate student needs an advisor who will write a stellar letter of recommendation, talk to colleagues and make calls when the time comes to find a post-doc, apply for faculty jobs or a job in industry. I think this is a fairly obvious point, but it should not be assumed that last two points are automatically obvious to all advisors.

Okay, before I continue, I will reiterate that what I described above are qualities to look for in devoted graduate school mentorship (i.e. a thesis advisor) with the assumption of an equally devoted graduate student. I would not join a lab expecting these kinds of mentorship qualities without putting in 110% effort. However, if one is giving 110%, the most one can do is try to find a situation in which that effort is maximally repaid in mentorship.

I hope that some of the points above will have been helpful in thinking about what is and isn’t important to you out of a thesis advisor.  The best resource for finding out how well a PI has provided mentorship in the past is obviously the PI’s graduate students.  As you look for labs, look at past and current graduate students. Look at their publication records on PubMed.  Ask the PI if and where these students did post-docs and where these past students ended up taking employment (e.g. academia–tenure track faculty posts–or industry, etc).  Read some of the lab’s past papers.  Ask past and current students how much the PI meets with them and provides guidance.  And see how easily past students have moved on to postdocs or jobs and how active the PI was in process.  These questions and others will hopefully help you find the PI most likely to give you everything you need out of graduate school.


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