By J.T. Neal, contributor
With a bit of structure and extra effort, both mentor and mentee can gain more from the experience.
Our lab, like many labs, has been buzzing with high school and undergraduate summer students over the last several weeks. Many of these students have never set foot in a lab before, and this lack of training, coupled with a mentor’s already busy schedule, can lead to occupying junior mentees only with menial tasks, or worse, make-work (think organizing the lab chemicals alphabetically.) With summer winding down, I’ve taken some time to think about what I’ve learned from mentoring these students, to reflect on my own experiences as an undergraduate mentee, and to come up with a few tips to help new mentors and mentees make the most of the experience.
- Be patient. Whilst you may have been born with pipette-in-hand, not everyone has this same level of scientific preparedness. Mistakes (sometimes colossal) will be made. Remember, science is hard.
- Define expectations. If you expect your student to work 40 hours a week while they are taking classes and working a second job, you should let them know before they start. Likewise, if your mentee expects a first authored paper for genotyping your mice, this should be clarified sooner rather than later
- Be inclusive. Heading to a cool talk or a low-key meeting with a collaborator? See if your mentee wants to come. Introduce them to your colleagues. The more inclusive you are, the more invested in the project your mentee will be.
- Be available. With loads of experiments, looming grant deadlines, and your PI/advisor/boss focused on you like the Eye of Sauron, it can be easy to project irritation at your mentee when they need something from you. Avoid this at all costs. By creating an environment where your mentee feels comfortable approaching you with questions, you prevent a lot of mistakes.
- Remember, this is an opportunity. Some mentors may feel they have been saddled with their mentee, but learning to be a better mentor will help you in every facet of your career. Your mentee might even teach you something (gasp!)
- Don’t be afraid to approach a potential mentor. Most will be honored that you asked, even if they say no, which is the worst that could happen.
- Define expectations. Talk with your potential mentor and establish exactly what your contribution to the project will be. Scientists often like to talk about the big picture, so it may not immediately be clear that “Identifying the novel drivers of colorectal carcinogenesis” equals you spending 3 hours a day refilling tip boxes.
- Find multiple mentors. Nobody can be an expert in everything.
- Be inquisitive. It’s ok to ask a lot of questions, we don’t expect you to know everything. A side note: if you bobblehead and “Yeah, yeah” your way through your mentor’s description of a protocol, they are going to assume you understand it.
- Be patient. Many of us may be mentoring a student for the first time, and are still figuring this whole thing out ourselves.
Above all, I’ve learned that with a little extra effort, junior mentoring can be very fulfilling for both mentor and mentee.
J.T. Neal is a postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford University School of Medicine, and is one of the winners of the Nature careers columnist competition. Keep an eye out for J.T’s work here on the blog and in the Careers pages of Nature magazine.