Being a Mentor During Grad School

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A few weeks ago, Beyond the PhD shared an article on how to find quality mentors to help shape and drive your professional development (read it here). Now, we want to dive a little deeper on the other side of mentorship: how to be a quality mentor. You might be a little hesitant to classify yourself as a mentor, especially if you are still a student or early in your career. However, there are plenty of scientists who can benefit from your valuable knowledge and guidance at your current stage.

I have been very fortunate at this stage in my PhD to have mentored a number of undergraduate students in the research lab and through teaching, and I know from their feedback that I had a positive role in their formation as scientists and professional development. However, this was not always the case. I learned how to be a mentor through trial and error, and there definitely has been error. After gathering input from colleagues and reflecting on my own mentoring experiences, I’ve put together some advice on how to be a quality mentor during grad school, or at any stage of your career.

Ask what they would like to gain/learn from you. As one colleague points out, “being a mentor during your PhD can take many different shapes and forms. I’ve learned that sometimes you’ll have the opportunity to instruct lab techs or post-docs, other PhD students, or even sometimes other PI’s, in addition to the classic example of undergrads. During these times, it brings to light the collaborative aspect of science and truly aides in honing science communication skills.” Since each mentor-mentee relationship is different, the purpose or goal is also going to differ. It is important to initiate the conversation about how the mentee would like to benefit from the mentorship so that you can better serve them and yourself.

Check in with mentees. While most of the time the mentee should initiate contact and be proactive in developing the relationship, it is also the role of the mentor to check in from time to time. This contact can be a follow up on advice given in the last meeting or simply a check in to let them know you are available. These types of communication will make your mentee more comfortable with you and likely further develop the mentorship so that both parties can benefit.

Set boundaries on your time so you do not burn out. Often, when we are looking to be helpful to another, we stretch ourselves too thin by over committing. In the role of a mentor, your mentee may ask you to edit writing samples, sit down to work through future career directions or project ideas, or help them connect to others in a specific area. All of these will build up not only their development, but potentially benefit you by exercising certain skills needed for each task. However, when you offer your time freely, it not only drains you but also can interfere with your performance quality. One of the biggest mistakes I made when I first started mentoring students was my tendency to say yes to everything, even when I was overloaded with my own work. Now, I am sure to set clear boundaries and expectations for timelines or meetings.  

Draw from experience on what you needed from your mentors at that stage. First time mentors, and even experienced ones, can sometimes feel a little lost on the best next steps. Even when you don’t have the perfect answer or advice, you can always remember back to what worked, and what didn’t, when you sought advice from mentors at certain stages and the advice they gave you. Use this as a base and make changes that are mentee-specific to best help.

Don’t compare your mentee’s progress to your own. Everyone has their own path and timeline, and you shouldn’t directly compare yourself or others to the journey your mentee is on. Comparison can often lead to discouragement from your mentee’s goals and set them back. Take the time to understand the path they are on and think about how you can guide them on their current path, not just push them onto the one you took.

Mentorship can be a beneficial experience for the mentor. As touched on in some of the other advice, mentorship doesn’t just benefit the mentee. Personally, I feel a lot of joy when students I have mentored in the lab and classroom are successful. It is great to share insight that I have gained when it comes to career prospects, grad school applications, project directions, and personal development. Through mentoring, I’ve been able to sharpen my own skills such as project management, time management, reviewing, editing, and offering constructive criticism. Due to the many benefits of mentoring, I look forward to continuing to mentor students in more capacities in the future. 

Mentor testimonials:

“It was important to me as a PhD student to take on these trainees to show them techniques beyond the scope of their project so they can learn a breadth or at least be introduced to as much content during their lab experience as possible. Going above and beyond the call of bench work by mentoring students was rewarding even if it did make somedays longer than they would have been. I felt it was important to give back to the upcoming classes of graduate students and to prepare them in ways I felt that I would have wanted as a student.” -Britt Knight

“I feel passionately about our duty to be mentors to the general public and to break down the barriers that makes science inaccessible to various groups. As such, I am heavily involved with a group called the Young Explorers in Science (YES). We work with local schools to have graduate students present to school aged kids about all kinds of science topics – from marine life in the Connecticut river to the science behind vaccines to animal models in research, we try to cover it all. I also think in a way, being a part of Beyond the PhD has allowed me to be somewhat of a mentor to my peers by filling a need for career guidance and bringing to light career opportunities.” -Rachel Gilmore

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