The latest event in the Graduate Studies “Becoming a Faculty Member” series was held on February 8. A panel of distinguished Graduate Faculty Mentoring Award recipients was on hand to discuss their mentoring styles. Members of the panel included Dean Madden (Department of Biochemistry), Joseph BelBruno (Department of Chemistry), Ross Virginia (Environmental Studies Program), Thalia Wheatley (Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences), and Gregory Holmes (Program in Experimental and Molecular Medicine). Faculty are nominated by graduate students and recent alumni to receive this award based on their outstanding dedication to fostering the professional and personal development of their students.
The panel was asked to discuss why they felt they had been successful mentors. They emphasized the importance of recognizing that each student is different and of adapting one’s approach to each individual. Ideally, a graduate student will leave school with the ability to confidently convey his or her own original ideas, and a mentor needs to foster this ability to think independently. Professor Holmes remarked that knowing where your students want to go in their future careers greatly helps in mentoring them successfully. If you cannot help them, you should direct them to where they can receive help in achieving their goals. The panel agreed that professional meetings are great places for students to develop their skills and meet potential postdoctoral advisors or employers.
Graduate student attendees asked which mentoring styles worked best for the panel and why. Professors Virginia and BelBruno stated that their methods were more “hands-off,” but accessible, in that they placed responsibility on their students to learn on their own, but made themselves available for discussion when needed. Professor Virginia also added that while he takes this approach, he does spend a lot of time with his students when they are out in the field conducting research. Graduate student, Gilbert Rahme, was intrigued to know if mentoring styles change over time (e.g. with promotions or obtaining tenure), and panelists agreed that tactics may become more relaxed with time. Professor Wheatley commented that you must always be “driven as a mentor to ask questions and find the answers.”
Effective mentors also rely on their postdocs to help in the task of counseling and teaching. Professor Holmes remarked that he expects his postdocs to also be great mentors, and he teaches them this skill by showing them how to choose and design projects and how to properly manage a lab. Professor BelBruno views postdocs as colleagues and expects them to educate themselves about lab research with only minor support. He feels that more focused support should be on how to become a successful professor.
Attendees also sought advice on what to do when challenges arise. Professor Madden encouraged students to find a way to communicate the issue directly to their mentor, since mentors cannot always tell when something is not working well for a student. This can be an intimidating prospect, and it can help to reach out to colleagues for advice on how to frame the issue.
Overall, panelists advised graduate students and postdocs to try to be fair and helpful mentors. Professor Virginia reminded everyone that graduate students are people too, who have lives and families, and an advisor should be prepared to appropriately help in all aspects of their lives. To be a well-rounded mentor, one needs to “know when to acknowledge life.”
by Molly Croteau