Good Mentoring

July 1, 2021

One of the recurring discussions / rants in academic circles is the crediting of good mentoring to the Professor. I’m not going to tag the stimulus of the day because it generalizes and because I have no idea what motivates any particular person on any particular day.

There does seem to be a common theme. A Professor, usually female and usually more-junior, is upset that her considerable efforts to mentor students or postdocs does not seem to get as much credit as they should. This is typically contextualized by oblique or specific reference that some other professors do not put in the effort to “mentor” their trainees as well and this is not penalized. Furthermore, there is usually some recognition that a Professor’s time is limited and that the shoddiness of the mentoring of those other peers lets them work on what “really counts”, i.e., papers and grants, to an advantage over the self-identified good mentor.

Still with me?

There is a further contribution of an accusation, implicit or explicit, that those other peer Professors are not just advantaged by not spending time on “mentoring” but also advantaged by doing anti-mentoring bad things to their trainees to drive them to high scientific/academic output which further advantages the bad mentor colleagues against our intrepid hero Good Mentor.

Over on Twitter I’ve been pursuing one of my usual conundrums as I try to understand the nature of any possible fixes we might put in place with regard to “good” and “bad” academic mentoring, i.e., the role of career outcome in influencing how the mentee and evaluating bodies might view the quality of mentoring practices. My point is that I’ve seen a lot of situations where the same PI is viewed as providing both a terrible and a good-to-excellent mentoring environment by different trainees. And the views often align with whether the trainee is satisfied or dissatisfied with their career outcomes, and align less well with any particular behaviors of the PI.

Here, I want to take up the nature of tradeoffs any given Professor might have, in the context of trying to mentor more than one academic trainee, yes concurrently, but also in series.

My assertion is that “good mentoring” takes time, it takes the expenditure of grant and other funds and it takes the expenditure of social capital, in the sense of opportunities. In the case of most of the Professoriate, these are all limited resources.

Let us suppose we have two graduate students nearing completion, in candidacy and up against a program requirement for, e.g., three published papers. Getting to the three published papers, assuming all else equal between the two trainees, can be greatly affected by PI throw down. Provision of assistance with drafting the manuscript, versus terse, delayed “markup” activities? Insisting the paper needs to get into a certain high JIF journal, versus a strategy of hitting solid society journals. Putting research dollars into the resources, capital or personnel, that are going to speed progress to the end, versus expecting the trainee to just put in more hours themselves.

A PI should be “fair”, right? Treat everyone exactly the same, right? Well…it is never that simple. Research programs have a tendency not to go to plan. Projects can appear to level themselves up or down after each experiment. Peer review demands vary *tremendously* and not only by journal JIF.

Let us suppose we have two postdocs nearing a push for an Assistant Professor job. This is where the opportunities can come into play. Suggesting a fill-in for a conference presentation. Proposing conference symposia and deciding which trainee’s story to include. Choosing which project to talk about when the PI is herself invited. Pushing collaborations. Manuscript review participation with a note to the Associate Editor. Sure, it could be “fair”. But this is a game of competitive excellence and tiny incremental improvements to the odds of landing a faculty position. Is it “good mentoring” if taking a Harrison Bergeron approach means you never seem to land any postdocs from the laboratory in the plummiest of positions? When a focal throwdown on one would mean they have a good chance but divide-and-conquer fails to advance anyone?

More importantly, the PIs themselves have demands on their own careers. “Aha”, you cry, “this selfishness is what I’m ON about.”. Well yes…..but how good is the mentoring if the PI doesn’t get tenure while the grad student is in year 3? Personal experience on that one, folks. “not good” is the answer. Perhaps more subtly, how is the mentoring going to be for the next grad student who enters the laboratory when the PI has generated “fair” publishing prior trainees but not the glamourous publications needed to land that next grant? How much better is it for a postdoc entering the job market when the PI has already placed several Assistant Professors before them?

Or, less catastrophically, what if the PI has expended all of the grant money on the prior student’s projects which the student constructed and just happens to be highly expensive (“my mentor supports my research (1-5”))? Is that good mentoring? Well yeah, for the lucky trainee but it isn’t fair in a serial sense, is it?

Another common theme in the “good mentor” debate is extending “freedom” to the trainee. Freedom to work on “their ideas”. This is a tough one. A PI’s best advice on how to successfully advance the science career is going to be colored in may cases by practicality of making reasonable and predictable forward progress. I recently remarked that the primary goal of a thesis-proposal committee is to say “gee that’s nice, now pick one quarter of what you’ve proposed and do that for your dissertation/defense“. Free range scientists often have much, much larger ideas than can fit into a single unit of productivity. This is going to almost inevitably mean the PI is reining in the “freedom” of the trainee. Also see: finite resources of the laboratory. Another common PI mentoring pinch point on “freedom” has to do with getting manuscripts actually published. The PI has tremendous experience in what it takes to get a paper into a particular journals. They may feel it necessary to push the trainee to do / not do specific experiments that will assist with this. They may feel it necessary to edit the hell out of the trainees’ soaring rhetoric which goes on for three times the length of the usual Intro or Discussion material. …..this does come at a cost to creativity and novelty.

If the “freedom” pays off, without undue cost to the trainee or PI or other lab members…fantastic! “Good mentoring!”

If that “freedom” does not pay off- grad student without a defendable project or publishable data, significant expenditure of laboratory resources wasted for no return – well this is “Bad mentoring!”

Different outcome means the quality of the same behaviors on the part of the PI is evaluated as polar opposites.

2 Responses to “Good Mentoring”

  1. bacillus Says:

    Hi DM:
    I have nothing useful to add to this discussion, but just wanted you to know that I still read and enjoy the articles you post here at your old stomping grounds. I miss your former vibrant blog, and hope you are not deterred from writing occasional old-style DM articles despite the lack of commentary they now draw. I’m hoping that they still attract plenty of lurkers like me. It’s time that your former audience forgave you for moving to Twitter:)


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    Thanks bacillus. I am not deterred….I fire this up when I get rolling on my thoughts with some issue. It’s just that nobody reads (or comments on) blogs anymore….gotta accept that the audience attention span is now fit for twitter….


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