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118: Find a Better Mentor with GradPI

Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a crystal ball that could reveal your grad-school future?

You might look forward to see if that next experiment will work out, or if your research will eventually make the cover of Nature.

What you should do with the power of foresight is to take a deep look at the quality of mentorship you’ll receive over the next few years.

It’s no secret that good research advisors can be tough to find. Most are passable – you’ll learn what you need to learn and graduate on time – and a few are stellar, elevating your research beyond what you thought was possible.

But of course, lurking somewhere at every institution, are a handful of awful, terrible, no good, very bad PIs. These are the people you must avoid at all costs, lest they destroy both your confidence and your career plan.

Of course, no one has a crystal ball, and sometimes our choice of a research mentor doesn’t pan out. But there’s a website hoping to change that.

Hindsight: 20/20

Gadareth Higgs was ready for graduate school. His grades were good, he had some research experience, and he had been accepted to one of the most competitive programs in the US.

“I just assumed we would have good mentors. That was not the case,” he recalls.

In his third year, Gadareth would be forced to change labs, and his new PI was “not big on mentorship.”

Gadarath’s qualifying exam didn’t go well, and there were signs that the PI was working against him behind the scenes. Ultimately, he had to leave the program.

Then he got an idea: why not make a website where students and postdocs can score their PI on the factors that matter, so that other students can make an informed decision before committing to a lab?

Enter GradPI.com, which is something like RateMyProfessor.com for graduate students. This week, we talk with Gadareth Higgs and Paola Figueroa-Delgado to find out more about the purpose and people behind the website.

At its core, GradPI allows students to score their advisors on five factors called the “SMART” scale.

From the Frequently Asked Questions page:

S stands for Standing. Reputation is important because your advisor will serve as the springboard for whatever you do next.
M stands for Mentorship. It is important to have an advisor who can serve as a scientific role model, even if not as a career or life guide.
A stands for Autonomy. The degree of independence desired by students is highly variable; only you know what’s best for you.
R stands for Resources. Money talks. End of story.
T stands for Tact. This is essentially a personality score. But it takes into consideration how well the advisor conveys feedback, and fosters a welcoming environment for students of different cultures, genders, races, religions, and sexual orientations.

It’s important to note that low-scores in a certain category may not be a bad thing for every student. Paola described how a prospective mentee might use the ratings to find a good fit.

“Everyone has different kinds of mentorship preferences. You can provide comments and feedback on these different categories and see why for you it’s important to have autonomy. So [an advisor] with a low autonomy score is not good for you,” she explained.

“But if you don’t care about that particular measure, then it’s not going to affect your overall run. It gives you a sense of where you would thrive as an individual in grad school.

And that’s the point – it’s not about complaining or praising a particular PI. It’s about matching a student’s needs with mentor’s abilities.

“But wait!” you’re thinking. “My lab is pretty small – won’t my PI know that I left a review?!”

GradPI has you covered. Users must register with their official academic email address, and the site screens out faculty to prevent them from seeing their ratings.

Second Chances

Gadareth was able to re-enroll in graduate school, and used his network to find a true mentor to support his research. This time, he’s ahead of schedule, and confident about the future.

“This is the same person, same motivation, same discipline. And just applied with a better environment.”

Mentorship makes all the difference. Head to GradPI.com to gaze into the grad-school crystal ball, or add your perspective and help all the students who follow in your footsteps.

Popping Jalapeños

This week, we sample the Jury Panel Jalapeño Pineapple Ale from Legal Remedy Brewing in Rock Hill, SC. It’s more savory than sweet, and might make a nice compliment to your next summer barbecue.

We should also mention that we’ve finally started that beer map we’ve always dreamed of. One hundred eighteen episodes of ethanol from across the country and around the world. Bottoms up!

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