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Mentor vs. Monolith

Finding and being a good graduate advisor

Mohamed Noor, Caiti Heil


Caiti: I appreciated getting a list of expectations from my Ph.D. advisor when I started in the lab. Specifically, it helped me to know what hours and days I was expected to work, how much stipend support and extramural funding I was expected to obtain for my research and how much time I should devote to teaching and departmental service. Most students don’t get such a prepared list, so it’s helpful to ask about these issues directly. It’s also useful to ask questions such as how will authorship be determined, and can projects initiated by a mentee in the laboratory leave with them when they graduate. I honestly had not thought about these things at all before I arrived, and I know many of my peers had problems resulting from expectations misaligned with those of their advisor.

Mohamed: It’s incumbent upon me as an advisor to make my expectations clear, since I am the one who is not new to such relationships. Like me, all advisors presumably were once mentees, so we advisors have experience with the other side. A good advisor makes time to talk with all of their mentees, and the amount of time will vary with each student’s need (for example, upcoming deadlines) and current stage (for example, a student may need more one-on-one time with the advisor initially). The advisor should give the mentee an accurate assessment of the progress and potential of the mentee’s research projects, as well as the individual’s overall preparation for a future independent career. This should be done regularly, not just on request.

To be a good advisor, I am also responsible for training and serving as a role model. For training, I need to help students become skilled at identifying and evaluating research projects. I need to help them learn how to dissect tough problems and develop a sense of what projects are or are not worth pursuing. This will require one-on-one time and extensive communication. I need to be open to learning and change, both in response to my students and in general. Finally, as a role model, I should lead by example. It would be disingenuous of me to spend all evenings and weekends with my family but simultaneously to expect my students to forgo their families and slave in the lab at all hours. Spending time with my family is vitally important to me, and I realize the same is true for my students.

I really want my students to communicate their expectations of me as well. I know that can be challenging or uncomfortable, but I can be far more effective as an advisor if my students clearly express their needs, wants and desires for change in the mentoring relationship. Even if the student’s request is unrealistic (for example, daily hour-long meetings), I can present alternatives that may satisfy the need within the framework of what I can provide.

Caiti: That’s what any relationship is—a two-way street. Ultimately, and perhaps counterintuitively, the most important thing you can do to enhance your success in science is to cultivate your communication skills. You have to communicate with your advisor, you have to communicate your science in publications and grant submissions, and you have to communicate orally at conferences and job interviews. It’s essential to work on succeeding at that from the beginning by communicating your needs and wants clearly in the advisor-student setting.

Mohamed: Exactly. The student’s needs will change over the course of the relationship, too, and it can be challenging for the advisor to adapt without a lot of feedback. The advisor needs to keep that in mind, and serve as a continuing resource and role model throughout the mentee’s development.

Additionally, the advisor has to be looking to the mentee’s future, with their input. Not only should the advisor help with their current research, but the advisor needs to help the mentee cultivate connections and directions for the future. Again, the advisor needs communication from the mentee to know how to do this effectively.

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