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Mentor vs. Monolith

Finding and being a good graduate advisor

Mohamed Noor, Caiti Heil


Mohamed: Mentoring styles can vary greatly—some advisors are very (oppressively?) hands-on, whereas others are completely hands-off. Some expect their students to completely develop and fund their own research projects, whereas others expect their students to work exclusively on “aim 3 of their current grant” and don’t have them develop an independent project. There are certainly continuums between these extremes, too. It’s best for students to think deeply about their personal style, feel out where their potential advisors are within these spectra and choose an advisor with a complementary style.

Still, problems can and probably will arise. For example, some advisors speak very informally with their students, saying whatever passes through their mind. Such interactions may be acceptable to some students, but other students may be hurt when advisors fail to fully consider the gravity of the words they use. Often new advisors still feel like “one of the lab,” and don’t realize the ramifications of either getting too close or of casually saying something perceived as quite critical. Such speech can be analogous to swinging around an invisible hammer with their words—what an advisor perceived as passing comments might upset a mentee for weeks.

Caiti: Current or former students can help a prospective student identify these kinds of problems and understand the lab’s team dynamics. For example, are the people in the lab generally happy? Are there frequent conflicts, and how are they resolved? Do they feel the research is collaborative or competitive? Potential advisees need to really consider what current and former students say—it’s easy to dismiss concerns as minor, but if many people raise the same concern, then it warrants serious contemplation.

Mohamed: I think it’s essential to talk with multiple people in those roles, as a single person may have had an unusual experience, but broader patterns within the comments can give a more unbiased assessment. Remember, every relationship between an advisor and mentee is unique—advisor attributes that some mentees find unacceptable may be neutral or perhaps even desirable to other mentees. Some mentees really don’t want an advisor checking in on them every other day, whereas others seek out advisors multiple times a day.

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