What Makes a Good Mentor?

On February 15, 2012 by Grad Forum

mentoring_panel_feature_edited_2While graduate students learn many technical skills on the road to their PhD, one of the most important (and difficult) aspects of a becoming a professor is often not taught in the classroom: how to become a good mentor.

On January 25, 2012, the Graduate Studies Office hosted a workshop for graduate students interested in developing their own mentoring skills while learning about the trials and tribulations of ‘mentoring.’ The third workshop in the multiple-part series “Becoming a Faculty Member,” the panel discussion included Joe BelBruno from the Chemistry department, David Bucci and Ann Clark from PBS, Jim Gorham from Micro/Immunology (primary appointment in Pathology), and Ross Virginia from the Department of Earth Science and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Proficient at mentoring themselves, each of the five panelists has been selected by their students as outstanding mentors and has previously won the Faculty Mentoring Award.

During the lunch discussion, the faculty members explained how their own methods of mentoring have developed throughout the course of their careers. Several of the panelists described less than ideal graduate advisors and postdoc experiences in which feedback and explicit instruction were extremely limited, if given at all. Noting that many new professors tend to mentor in the way that they themselves were mentored, the panelists agreed that getting to know the motivations of each individual student in order to best help them achieve their own unique goals is key to a successful mentorship.

“I was allowed to follow my research interests,” recalls Joseph BelBruno of his own graduate school experience. As a result, BelBruno says that he strives to cultivate a laboratory atmosphere in which he remains present and accessible, yet still allows his students to work comfortably at their own pace.

“I don’t check in on people on the weekends,” says BelBruno. “I find it counterproductive. However, you definitely need to have a proactive style in the first few years.”

For Professor Jim Gorham, it’s accessibility and caring that make the difference between a good mentor and a mediocre one. Explaining how his graduate advisor had “a very laissez-faire attitude” towards lab management, Gorham described how he has adapted his own mentorship style to provide the right level of supervision and feedback for each student. As some students require a more involved style of mentorship while others prefer a hands-off method, all of the panelists stressed that it’s imperative to tailor mentoring approaches to each individual student.

PBS Professor David Bucci noted that he actively resists micro-managing his students, instead allowing them space to make their own mistakes. “I like to let my students fail a little bit,” Bucci said. “It’s important to disassociate how a student reflects on you, and allow them to have their own experiences.  I think it’s better than constantly stepping in and finishing [tasks in the lab] for them.”

“It’s not all up to one person—we all make mistakes,” says Ann Clark, a PBS professor. Stressing the importance of students taking an active role in their own professional development, Clark suggested that it is very helpful to get additional perspectives outside of your research group, department, and even your school. Similarly, Bucci noted that it’s “nearly impossible” to serve all of the mentoring needs of each student in his lab. “It took me a while to become comfortable with not having ALL of the answers to some of my students’ questions,” says Bucci.

For Ross Virginia, explaining his own obligations and responsibilities as a faculty member ultimately creates a more relaxed lab atmosphere—and learning environment—for his students. “We’re in this together,” he notes. “Faculty are people, too—we like to avoid conflict as much as anyone. It might not be comfortable, but you need to ask for feedback on how you are doing.”

For older graduate students who are looking to develop their own mentoring skills, taking on supervisory roles within the lab can help prepare those pursuing careers in academia. Pointing to the abundance of “great undergraduates who want to come into labs and help,” Virginia suggested becoming involved in programs such as WISP (Women in Science Project) that allow burgeoning graduate student mentors opportunities to interact with younger students.

“Having interns is a nice snapshot of what it’s like to be a faculty member,” explains Clark, noting that balancing mentoring duties while simultaneously keeping up with your own research is a requisite as a professor. This balance between maintaining a productive lab and teaching students to become independent scholars was a challenge voiced by all of the panelists, and one that they expressed they continually work hard at developing.

“Dartmouth is an educational institution as well as a research institute,” stresses Gorham.  “If you don’t focus on educating students, allowing them to learn from their mistakes, you might develop great lab technicians, but not scientists.”

 by Erin O’Flaherty






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