Learning to be a better mentor and leader

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This is a guest post by Helen McCreery, with contributions from: Amanda K. Hund, Amber C. Churchill, Akasha M. Faist, Caroline A. Havrilla, Sierra M. Love Stowell, Julienne Ng, Cheryl A. Pinzone, and Elizabeth S. C. Scordato.

Along with the other listed contributors, I’m part of a team that recently published a new paper in Ecology and Evolution about mentoring in STEM: “Transforming mentorship in STEM by training scientists to be better leaders.” In this work we propose a model for substantial training of grad students and postdocs as a way to improve the overall quality of mentorship in academia.

Academic advisors play a massively important role in the scientific lives of their graduate students and postdocs. They help guide their students through grad school, job applications, and more, acting as some combination of trainer/boss/mentor/cheerleader/ dictator/steering committee/etc. Students can and do find other mentors, but the advisor tends to act as a primary mentor. If you are or have been in academia, I don’t need to convince you of the importance of the relationship between an advisor and their students/postdocs. When I was applying to grad schools, I was told, tongue-in-cheek, that choosing the right advisor is more important than choosing a spouse, since grad school lasts longer than many marriages – (and the importance of the relationship lasts much longer)!

Probably one of the main reasons everyone says it’s so important to have a good “fit” with your advisor, is that everyone in academia has seen examples of this relationship going poorly. It turns out that not all scientists in the role of academic advisor are good at doing it – though I want to emphasize that it’s not just about universally “bad” advisors, as people can excel at advising one student but really not mesh with another. When these relationships don’t go well, that can lead to pretty drastic consequences, generally for the student. This is really not news, and there have been some great articles – including a special issue in Nature – discussing challenges in mentoring in academia and STEM. While many people have really positive and productive experiences with their advisors, we found that 70% of mentees report that a breakdown in the mentoring relationship had affected their mental health. That’s way too much.

Most advisors receive little to no training in mentoring and leadership. Instead, many take an ad-hoc advising approach – modeling mentorship behaviors that worked for them when they were students, and learning by trial and error. But one size doesn’t fit all, and this is problematic for students who don’t have the same background, experience, and preferences as their advisors. The idea that you have to learn by trial and error also seems to be really persistent, but it’s not true! There’s lots of evidence that you can improve your mentoring skills through targeted training.

We propose addressing this training gap at the graduate student and/or postdoc levels. We modeled this at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Amanda Hund and Elizabeth Scordato initially designed and lead a semester-long mentoring and leadership seminar. The rest of us took that seminar its first year, and we worked together to develop the paper. (If you’re interested in using our experience as a model to start your own seminar, everything you need is in the paper and the supplement!)

We found an abundance of information and data (including from the private sector) about mentoring best practices. We compiled much of this information and we found that, while there are lots of successful mentoring approaches, the best mentoring relationships tend to have three characteristics: flexibility, good communication, and trust. In our seminar, we explored how to build these characteristics into our relationships by 1) identifying best practices, 2) exploring our own mentoring personalities and preferences, 3) practicing effective mentoring in difficult situations, 4) discussing professional behavior and ethics, and 5) each developing a mentoring philosophy. Many more details can be found in the paper, including the full syllabus and more resources in the supplement. People who took this seminar in the two years it has been offered so far report feeling much better prepared for leadership roles, and report improvements in existing mentoring relationships (with their advisors or with assistants they are mentoring).

For too many people, difficulties in the relationship with an advisor get in the way of their work and lives. This isn’t only bad for the students and postdocs who try to muddle through, but it also dramatically affects productivity and leads to people leaving STEM fields altogether. STEM is losing some great people, perspectives, and contributions. We think our paper will be useful to anyone who wants to improve their own mentoring relationships (students or advisors), and we would love to hear about more of these seminars being offered! Please comment with resources or experiences you’ve found valuable related to academic mentoring. If you’re interested, take a look at our paper and consider how you can help improve the mentoring landscape at your institution. This is a solvable problem!

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