When I start a new batch of students in my lab, my spiel includes:
Two problems can prevent success. The first is poor communication, and the second is poor data management.
At the moment, I think this is true. As poor data management is a by-product of poor communication, it really just boils down to communication.
Earlier on in my career, I was too quick to attribute communication failures to my lack of approachability, or poor decision-making by my students. I don’t see it this way anymore.
Oftentimes, minor bad stuff happens that is eminently fixable. But sometimes, the students don’t want to tell me about it, thinking they can fix it on their own, and then it can just get worse, and worse, and I don’t learn about it until it’s too late. This has happened to me more often than I wish to contemplate. Let me use one real example to illustrate how this happens.
After being in the rainforest for a couple weeks, one of my students asked me, “Have you seen John’s leg yet?*” I think to myself, WUT this doesn’t sound good. And it’s not. I ask, “What about John’s leg?” “He had a bite, but it got infected and he keeps scratching it, and it looks pretty ugly.” So I tracked down John, looked at his leg and thought to myself, “Dear All That Is Holy we need to get him to a doctor like yesterday.” I will do you the favor of not providing a graphic description, but clearly, the infection on his leg had gone several days past the point when he needed a doctor appointment. We were past the point where a trip to our small-town clinic would suffice, now we needed a proper hospital to deal with this properly. In some hours, he was whisked off to the big city to have his infection dealt with on an outpatient basis.
End of story. No huge deal. But it was a medical not-quite-yet crisis that shouldn’t have happened. The problem emerged because John didn’t tell me as it was developing. I only found out about it after it had escalated. I could offer a few other examples along these lines, with bigger personal or research-related crises (e.g., ants not behaving, field experiment taking too long to set up, childcare problems at home, an odiously sexist member of the crew) that were not resolved so tidily. But John’s festering leg is a good illustrative example.
So, let me ask you, who is at fault here? Me, John, or both of us? And what did either of us do wrong? I’ve changed my mind on this three times.
Initially, I thought it was John who was at fault because he didn’t tell me about something that was important. It was his job to tell me about this kind of thing.
Shortly afterwards, I realized I was at fault, because I was (apparently) the kind of mentor who John could not approach about a problem. He must have thought I was too busy, or didn’t care, or would blame him, or embarrass him, or something else. It was my personality as his supervisor and mentor that was the problem – I wasn’t approachable enough.
Then, after a bit more introspection, I recognized that both of us were at fault. I should have been more approachable, but then he should have approached me anyway.
With some years’ time, I’ve come to recognize that’s wrong, too. It’s my fault. I’m the supervisor, and it’s my responsibility. The buck stops with me. My shortcoming wasn’t in being approachable enough, but in being an inadequate mentor. I wasn’t doing my job as a mentor. I was never trained how to mentor, and for far too long I had been relying on accessibility and approachability as a mentorship tool. And that has been my undoing on multiple occasions.
Of course we don’t want our students to fear us and we want them to find us approachable. However, it’s not our mentee’s job to bring up every important thing. It’s our job to ask questions about the right things. Just as we cannot rely on our own approachability, we also cannot rely on our students’ willingness to approach.
Moreover, we should not rely on our mentees’ abilities to differentiate what is important to mention and what is not important. The relationship is built on the experience of the mentor. As mentors, we are supposed to know what things matter, and we need to pay attention to them even if they are not problems.
I just helped run a workshop on mentoring undergraduates, and there was a ton of experience in the room. But when my co-organizer asked, “Who has received training in mentorship?” it was crickets. This isn’t something we’re trained to do, and a lot of us who have been doing it for a long time aren’t that good at it. I don’t know if I’m good at it now, but I do see that the way I had been doing it for a while had a lot of shortcomings.
Mentorship isn’t about giving advice. Mentoring is the opposite of giving advice. Good mentors ask questions, and then listen. And then ask new questions. Mentors often have a good idea where our mentees need to be, but it’s not our job to tell them to get there, but to help them see the route.
There’s a reason why I haven’t been a good mentor at times. Being a good mentor takes not only time, but conscious effort. A passive mentor is a no good mentor. It’s very easy to tell someone what to do, but it’s a lot more work to guide someone towards figuring out what to do. You can demonstrate a field technique or a lab technique, of course, and how to do something new in a spreadsheet. But when it comes to big picture stuff about how and why we are doing what we’re doing, that’s not an “I’ll tell you,” thing, it’s a “Let me ask you questions to help you find your own way” thing. And those conversations take a lot of time. And if you don’t like mentoring students, and you aren’t interested in them as human beings, then it gets tedious really quickly. I do really like my students, but I often have taken on too many at the same time, and also I haven’t recognized the importance of asking questions, listening to the answers, and then asking a series of new questions based on those original questions.
It’s very easy to ask, “Is everything okay? Any questions or concerns?” and then stop when things sound fine. But good mentoring asks, “Are your data sheets looking like they should? Is everybody getting along well? Have you have any safety concerns? What are things that haven’t worked out like you’ve anticipated? Are there supplies you need or want? Do feel like if you work at the current rate that you’ll meet your objectives? What articles have you been reading?”
These conversations matter. Unless you have regular conversations about low-stakes hiccups, it’s not likely that a mentee will volunteer information about high-stakes hurdles.
The onus is not on the mentee to mention a big problem, it is on the mentor to maintain a consistently open conversation so that problems can get mentioned as they emerge.
In other words, you can’t let a mentee go relatively unsupervised until a problem emerges, and then expect them to contact you when a problem pops up for you to deal with. Effective mentorship means being in touch even when the mentee doesn’t see problems.
I should have known about John’s infected leg far earlier. We had regular meetings, but those meetings weren’t adequately structured to give him the opportunity to volunteer little things that were troubling him. I wasn’t listening enough, I wasn’t asking specific enough questions. He didn’t tell me because I didn’t provide the opportunity when we were meeting.
You don’t necessarily have to be “approachable” to be a good mentor. You have to approach the students yourself, on a regular basis, and have conversations in which you are asking lots of questions. Mentors can help fix some problems, but moreover, they’re there to help identify problems that the mentee didn’t know about, and to help the mentee find the solution.
You can still be a great mentor if the mentee never, ever chooses to voluntarily to come to you for a conversation. You can also be an excellent mentor but be an extraordinarily busy person. You just need to have regular appointments with your mentees and ask lots of questions and listen when you’re meeting. You don’t need to be perceived as readily accessible, but you just need to create genuine availability on a regular basis. Some of the best mentors in academia are very busy people. That’s not a fluke. Busy people get stuff done and are proactive about what they are doing. They can be busy and put their mentees first.
If we develop a mentorship style that relies on our mentees approaching us with questions and concerns, then we are developing a mentorship approach that selects against students from different backgrounds and cultures. It’s well documented that students are far more comfortable approaching faculty who have similar backgrounds. You can still be a good mentor to students who have different backgrounds from you, even if they don’t approach you, as long as you have regular structured conversations with them.
Our job as mentors is to the do the approaching.
I once heard — I forget where — a great definition of mentorship. It’s taking a particular interest in the mentee’s professional development. It’s a relationship in which you are putting their professional interests above your own stuff.
If you’re hiring a student to work for you, you don’t necessarily have to be their mentor, and if you’re not serving as a mentor, don’t call yourself one. Just make sure you say that you’re a boss, supervisor, PI, or something else. If you say that you’re a mentor, then you’re there to listen on a consistent basis. I once talked with someone who said that they “mentored over 100 undergraduates” while in grad school. I asked what this mentorship involved, and they basically explained that they had the student volunteering to run samples through a machine for a few hours per week. That’s not mentorship — if anything, it’s exploitation.
It’s good for your students know they can approach you when they think they need you. But to be a good mentor, you need to consistently approach your students when they don’t think they need you.
*This is not his real name.