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055: Four Ideas to Modernize Mentorship – #modernPhD Part 2

Today, a graduate student will make a terrible mistake.

He’ll blindly commit to a long-term relationship that will make him miserable.  He’ll be too shy to ask his partner the painfully awkward questions that could predict their ultimate failure as a team.

Does this person have time for me?  Is she enthusiastic about helping me succeed?  Do our goals align?

Of course, this is not a romantic relationship: it’s the commitment formed between a grad student and his advisor.  And though it’s not a marriage, it can cover some of the same emotional ground.  When it’s healthy, you’ll both grow as people and you’ll achieve more than you would alone.

When it’s unhealthy, you might bear the emotional scars for the rest of your life.

With just a few simple changes to the graduate-advisor relationship, we can make sure more students, and their mentors, reach their full potential.  Why leave it to chance?

If we want to improve PhD mentorship, we have to consider how the relationship forms and finds support at all levels.

1. It’s not “you,” it’s “us”

Though it may be a stretch to describe the graduate student/advisor relationship as a marriage, it does have some useful parallels.  The first is that both sides are responsible for the relationship.

Often, we decry a ‘terrible PI’ or a ‘mean advisor’ and forget that the student forms half of the relationship.  The two must work together as a team, and there are a few ways to ensure a good fit.

The Wisconsin Mentor Training Core offers a checklist that mentors and students can talk through when assessing fit.  It seems trite, but many graduate training experiences have risen, and fallen, on such simple questions as:

  • Can I commit adequate time to mentoring this person?
  • Does this person have access to the kind of opportunities that can support my learning?
  • Am I committed to developing my own mentoring skills?

Though it might feel awkward, having an honest conversation with your intended advisor could save you from years of disappointment, depression, and anxiety.  You don’t have to use the clinical-sounding questions in your conversation, but you should rephrase them and understand the answers before you commit.

2. It takes a village

We need to stop thinking of the PI or advisor as an army-of-one.  That creates an unhealthy codependence, and leaves the student with very few resources if the relationship turns sour.

Instead, every student should identify a mentorship team – the three to five advisors, coaches, and cheerleaders they’ll lean on during their training.

Your PI might be your academic advisor and help you navigate the world of peer-reviewed research.  But you may also want to find a friendly post-doc that can recall the tricks of completing a dissertation or to diagnose why your mini-prep always fails.

Do you want to pursue a career off the faculty track?  Then you’ll certainly need to identify a science writer, industry researcher, or policy wonk to show you the path.  Your PI doesn’t have the same resources as a seasoned professional in that alternate field.

3. Follow the lighted exit signs

Universities and departments can significantly improve training outcomes by giving students the option to move if their research-relationship isn’t working out.

Too often, there is a stigma associated with ‘changing labs,’ and it’s so pervasive that many students prefer to quit graduate school rather than ‘starting over.’  But sometimes, a fresh start can lead to success and help the student rediscover their confidence and love of science.

Though it’s never easy to start over on a PhD research project, the option should be available and encouraged when the advisor-student relationship truly meets an impasse.

4. Follow the money

Many PIs have a conflict of interest.  They receive research grants, and use that funding to pay students.  The trouble is, students are just that – students.  They’re in school to be trained, not specifically to check the boxes on a PI’s grant proposal.

It’s subtle, but treating students as employees can lead to conflicts.  Should the student take time for a science writing workshop if that is their intended career?  Should they spend time demonstrating DNA extraction at the local high-school if they’re interested in teaching?

Each of these activities is part of a holistic training regime, but they also stand in direct conflict with finishing up figures for papers that must be published to renew this grant.  See the trouble?

The research advisor has no direct incentive to encourage well-rounded training, and in fact, it’s taking valuable time away from the bench.

Luckily, the NIH and NSF offer funding explicitly earmarked for training students and postdocs.  And don’t worry – they’ll probably also complete a few research projects along the way…

Little, yellow, tasty

For ethanol this week, we beat the heat with Oskar Blues’ Mama’s Little Yella Pils.  It’s a full-flavored pilsner (I never thought I’d write those words together!) and it’s perfect for the lazy days of summer.

And while you sip, why not remember the other classic Little Yellow Pills:

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