Monday, June 2, 2008

On Mentors

Over on Drugmonkey, PhysioProf wrote about the misconception that, in order to be a good mentor, a PI has to be at the bench, able to do every technique in the lab better than anyone else. He says,

Sitting at the bench or having good hands has nothing to do with being a good PI. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. There is no positive correlation.
I agree with him. I also agree with the commenters who note that the selection process for PI's really should reflect that fact. Not having gone on the job market, however, I don't know weather it does.

The debate of interest to me at this stage of the game, however, is over just how pervasive bad mentoring actually is. One commenter, Becca (no blog), suggested that bad mentoring is so common that,
The system is broken. If not because it doesn't work for so many, than because it wastes so much time for so many. Bad mentorship is a leading cause.
She goes on to cite up to 50% drop-out rates at her institution, and to say that she
think[s] that most of these individuals *deserved* to finish their degrees.
Personally, I think Becca is suffering from the all too common disconnect between the idealistic vision of grad school and academia in general and the reality of living in the adult world. Nobody DESERVES to graduate simply because they were admitted into graduate school. It's a long, hard road, and you don't get that hood if you don't walk to the end. Period.

And that road is filled with sharp curves, and is poorly lighted. Before entering graduate school, students are so focused on doing all the right things to get into graduate school - getting the grades, getting the research experience, getting the recommendation letters, taking the GRE. It's ticking off boxes. And most people have a fair amount of support in this endeavor. But once you have ticked off those boxes, sent out those applications and been accepted to a program, the nature of the game changes. It's no longer as simple as ticking off boxes; instead of performing well at pre-determined times that have been announced to you well in advance, you have to be on top of your game all the time. Then you join a lab, and it's not enough to be smart or to have potential. You are expected to produce. Produce data, produce insight, produce something publishable.

Different mentors have different approaches for getting you to achieve that last goal. Not all styles of mentoring will work well for all mentees. And there are some ineffectual, even damaging mentors out there, but grad students, as the adults they are, need to take some responsibility for their own education. A potential mentee has but two jobs - first, seek out the mentor, or mentors that fulfill the mentee's own needs, and second, be open and accepting of mentoring. Most graduate student expect their PI to be a good mentor to them. Sometimes this doesn't happen. What then? If your PI is a bad mentor, find another mentor. Find two or three, in fact, because no one mentor is ever going to fulfill all your needs. If you find yourself at an institution that does not as a whole provide good mentorship, go to another institution.

I spent a lot of time and effort researching schools to make sure I would be in the environment that was right for me. Then, once I got into grad school, I spent a lot more time and effort looking for a mentor who was right for me. I could have joined a lab headed by a big name PI who has his fingers in every pie in my field. Instead, I chose to join the lab of a junior PI who was doing the kind of work I wanted to to, and who showed that he respected me as a person and was comfortable with my "lifestyle". I am certain that there is no way I would have made it through my first year in a lab otherwise. I am often very frustrated when I have to listen to classmates who complain about their PI's, only to find out that either they had heard the stories about that person and thought that it wouldn't happen to them, or, they hadn't even bothered to ask around or do any research on the person for whom they were going to have to work for several years. That is a careless thing to do. As they say, you have to lie in the bed you make.

As for the counter-claim that some students are not mature enough to do that kind of legwork, well, maybe some people aren't ready for graduate school right out of college. Maybe they should go out into the world for a little while and see how it works before they dive into a PhD. program.

As for the second job of a mentee, fellow students, don't be so quick to paint your PI with the dumb-fuck brush. I have had both the humbling experience of having my PI point out something incredibly obvious that was screwing up my experiments and the exhilarating experience of having an idea that my PI pooh-poohed actually produce interesting results. It seems that grad students go through a sort of adolescence - where their PI is like the parent and they have to prove that they can function separately from them. Just like how adolescent children like to say their parents don't know anything, so too do grad students like to bitch about their PI who could never understand all the details of their experiments. A certain amount of this is totally normal - just blowing off steam. But if we get carried away with it, we may miss out on what our mentors have to offer. So what if your PI doesn't know how to use every piece of equipment in the lab with a level of skill and grace that would make angels weep. Does that mean they have nothing to offer? No. And is that really all you came to graduate school to learn? I hope not.

19 comments:

Mike said...

It seems that grad students go through a sort of adolescence - where their PI is like the parent and they have to prove that they can function separately from them.

I think this is spot-on. I completely agree with you. Another way I've seen this play out is in a kind of sibling rivalry that develops among people in the lab. It's not for nothing that people refer to their academic "parents" and "grandparents".

And speaking of immature, could there be a more childish attitude than thinking that being a PI means that you are an expert at pipetting and using every conceivable piece of lab equipment, like some kind of super-grad student. It reminds me a little of a letter I once got from a junior high student during a letter exchange program in the physics department. "What", he asked eagerly, "is the biggest animal you've ever dissected?" Like that's what being a good scientist means, everyone is on a one-dimensional hierarchy that can be judged by the sizes of the animals you dissect or the most complicated piece of equipment you know how to you use.

PhysioProf said...

Great post! Two comments:

(1) I am pleased that you have figured out the bloggers' secret that great posts frequently start as great comments on others' blogs. It always makes sense to wring every last drop of blogitude out of such effort.

(2) For the love of all that is good and right in the universe, please, please, please, get rid of the light-on-black blog theme. It is exceedingly painful to read for those of us with eyes that are no longer in their 20s or 30s.

Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde said...

I don't think this post makes you a scab; it makes you mature.

I think a lot of the frustration people have with the existence of bad mentors, though, is--why are these people still around? If a faculty member has a reputation for screwing over his minions, why isn't he prevented from getting his hands on new grad students? Instead, all of the burden falls on the student to intuit who will and won't be a good mentor. I'm fine with people taking charge of their education, and seeking out what they need, etc etc. But I don't think it's a great idea for a system to rely entirely on 23 year olds exercising good judgment about who would make a good boss for the next 5 years. It would be nice if every now and then, a particularly poor mentor were forbidden from chewing up any more students. But the system does not work to prevent that from happening.

ScientistMother said...

Excellent commentary on the need to take responsibility for yourself. As a 'mature' grad student, I find taking charge of your own future, along with being respectful of everyone else, pays off hugely in others desire to collaborate with you and to teach you.

juniorprof said...

Your post shows a level of maturity and comprehension about this profession that I did not grasp until I was well into my second postdoc. Remember what you have written here, it will serve you well

Becca said...

Hi-ya,
Just for clarification, I did not say that my instution has a 50% attrition rate (as far as I know, nobody has the data for my institution). I was saying I have seen indications that around 50% of people who start PhDs don't finish them. It seems to be lower in the life sciences- more like 35% never finish (or at least they don't finish within 10 years).

What got under my skin, was that at my instutition, out of a sample of grad students who were kicked out of their labs, 11/12 were females (and 10/12 were international students). Unless there is some compelling reason my institution lets in more poorly prepared female international students, I will be inclined to believe that their problems resulted not solely from their own failings, but also from a failure of mentorship.
Of course, I could be wrong. It may well be that these students were harder to mentor for reasons other than the fact they are going to have a very different experience than their mostly OWAM-(old, white, American, male) mentors.

Call me crazy, but I don't think it's solely a failure of the students. I don't even think it's sheer evil malice on the part of the mentors (remember, these are mentors that were willing to give these women a shot). I think it's a bit more challenging to mentor across-gender lines, noticably more challenging to mentor across-cultural lines... and that it's entirely possible that these mentors had some level of unconcious bias. I'm not just advocating for better mentoring in some childish desire for revenge ("these people should never have another grad student!")- though I have felt that way, I don't really believe that is the most productive reaction. I'm advocating for better mentoring because I believe mentorship is difficult and I believe mentors often have a lot of desire to be great mentors, yet have very poor skills (or, more commonly, decent enough skills that are nonetheless completely inadaquete for the particular gifted trainee they are currently trying to inspire). I suspect we'd both like to see some form of training for mentors (or future-mentors) encouraged by the profession.

Also, I'm not suffering from the disconnect between my ideals and reality- I'm enjoying every minute of it (just like my insanity...).

You say "that road (to the PhD) is filled with sharp curves, and is poorly lighted"... on the one hand, yes it is full of sharp curves (research is like that, regardless of diplomas or degrees!). On the other hand, I'm inclined to ask, how many academic bioscientists does it take to change a freakin' lampost lightbulb?! Why is the way so poorly lit?
I think there are a lot of ways the way can be better lit. I refuse to just stumble along in the dark. I don't just curse the darkness though- I want to make it better lit for everyone.
Actually, (not just by way of peace offering [although it is that too]) I should say- I think your blog and comments have done me a lot of good. They are indeed lighting the way for other students (who may not be so mature and insightful as you). So, Thanks!

acmegirl said...

PP - Never let it be said that I don't practice what I preach. Hope the new color scheme works better for all readers.

Becca - Thanks for stopping by! I'm glad you find what I have to say useful. Unfortunately, I have to say that I don't think that the darkness of the road is due to the lightbulb needing changed. I think it is because each of us must walk our own path, and the path has not been laid yet. Partly I think that is because that is the way science works. The other part, IMO, is that this is part of what we are learning in graduate school - how to point our own headlights in the right direction.
I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and I am definitely still struggling with it myself as my advisor leaves me to my own devices more and more.

acmegirl said...

Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde - I don't know how you could keep tenured professors from taking on students. But I do think this is where good support and mentoring from the student's department can help.

My program's administrator has taken the time to talk through many decisions with me - including which lab to join. She knows all the dirt on advisors because she asks the students how things are going, often, and she really listens. She is all too happy share with you what you need to know, and she always knows someone she can point you to for things she doesn't know as much about. The chair has also been a great help because he does the same thing, though less often.

I also know some other programs give you the names and email addresses of other students who are in the labs you are considering so you can contact them and ask questions. I know this is still putting the burden on the student to some degree, but I really like this idea because it makes it clear that networking is important.

Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde said...

Yes, I do think that in many cases the opportunity is out there for students to get more information about their prospective PIs. But often, that information is insufficient, or difficult to evaluate--is the faculty member praising them just a good buddy from way back? Is the disgruntled postdoc just a bad lab worker?

I've had a couple of friends chewed up by a PI who everybody *thought* was going to be really good. She was new, so of course it was a chance, but the other faculty talked her up, her research is cool, etc etc. Those are two friends who now have either left science or are planning to; neither is in the lab any longer. These are both really smart, friendly, good people. They got given bad advice about joining this lab. But nobody knew it was bad advice at the time. So they both wasted 2-3 years, and got highly discouraged in the process. Similar horror stories abound.

What steams me is the monopolistic aspect. You need your PI more than she needs you. But it's not easy to leave, even if you've realized that you landed in a bad situation. You leave behind a lot of work and time, you start from scratch somewhere new....and you have to convince another PI to take you on. The system is really not designed to protect grad students even a teensy weensy little bit. They're adults, but I bet more of them would stay in science (or at least finish their PhDs) if we found a way to make it just a shade less difficult to find a good mentor.

theresearchlife said...

Interesting post because I was thinking back to a previous experience and it was exactly that--having perfect lab skills doesn't equal good mentoring. But I haven't seen mentors, especially those involved in teaching and administration, lately working in their labs anymore.

Dr Jeklyl and Mr Hyde "But I don't think it's a great idea for a system to rely entirely on 23 year olds exercising good judgment about who would make a good boss for the next 5 years." I agree with this. It's so much time wasted trying to figure things out that someone already active in the committee and in the administration might have the information to and may be better equipped to suggest possible mentors rather than letting us students try to figure it out on our own.

Like acmegirl says, we can always try to contact the administrator and chair anyway...but then, since it's early in the game, do so without sounding like a needy person.

Drugmonkey said...

It's no longer as simple as ticking off boxes; instead of performing well at pre-determined times that have been announced to you well in advance, you have to be on top of your game all the time. Then you join a lab, and it's not enough to be smart or to have potential. You are expected to produce. Produce data, produce insight, produce something publishable.

oh, yeah. >sigh<. I think this hits on one of the reasons I emphasize the "this is a job" so much, even if it isn't precisely what I mean. Your post is also the nice version of "nobody cares about your problems, if you figure out how to succeed, cool, if not, oh well".

one of the things that kills me (and was part of my original dustup with YFS, IIRC) is that trainees forget that we were in their shoes at one point. the assumption seems to be "if anyone is a PI, s/he must have had it all go schweeet at all times and had things handed over on a platter". not true. Me, I had stuff go down that would have some of these people whining and crying for months about how unfair and broken the system is. I know this because I was doing the whining! Guess what I discovered? Nobody cares.

Or at least, things go one hell of a lot better if you act as if this is strictly true. It isn't, of course, some people do care and will help you out. But mostly, nobody cares.

PhysioProf said...

10/12 were international students

Mentoring is exceedingly difficult when there is a language barrier between PI and trainee.

Acmegirl: My eyes thank you for the new theme!!!!

Becca said...

@physioprof- given the research on international TAs, I'd say the *perception* of a language barrier can cause someone to be rated as a poor communicator (I think these involved tape recordings of voices with different photos attached- show them a pic of a person of European decent and, students 'magically' understand, show them a person of color who looks like they are from a certain place, and students object strenously to how awful it is we can't even hire TAs who speak English).

This isn't to say there aren't real problems across language barriers. I am painfully familar with some of them.
Also, I think even among different flavors of native English speakers, there can be some cross-cultural mentoring challenges. I grant that mentoring is hard.

Nonetheless, I am busy being righteously indignant here. I do not need you to be an apologizer for the fucking oppressors.
I know the situation at my institution better than you, and some of it just doesn't seem morally right. If your intent was not to make excuses, you can consider yourelf exempt from the apologizer comment.

PhysioProf said...

If your intent was not to make excuses, you can consider yourelf exempt from the apologizer comment.

I was not in any way attempting to make excuses for the situation in your department. I was only riffing off of one aspect of what you said.

And what I should have clarified is that, while it is exceedingly difficult, it is not impossible and with time and effort can be effective.

acmegirl said...

dr. jekyll & mrs. hyde:
I've had a couple of friends chewed up by a PI who everybody *thought* was going to be really good.
It would be helpful to understand what you mean by 'chewed up'. I'm not sure we are all talking about the same kinds of problems.
What steams me is the monopolistic aspect. You need your PI more than she needs you.
I'm not sure that's strictly true, especially in this age of tight funding. The average PI needs everyone to be productive, and can't really afford to be paying tuition and stipend for a student who is just foundering. I'm starting to understand that this can be very stress inducing, and not all PI's handle it well. I'm also starting to realize that, in working on my thesis research, though I may be interested in learning or trying things just because they sound cool to me, I need to prioritize and try to focus on answering an actual scientific question. Of course I need my PI to guide me through that, but he also needs me to do it, or else he won't get tenure (or the next grant, or whatever else is the next step for that particular PI).

acmegirl said...

DM:
Your post is also the nice version of "nobody cares about your problems, if you figure out how to succeed, cool, if not, oh well".

That's not quite how I meant it. I think there are people who care, you just have to find them - they don't just present themselves to you like a fairy godmother. And I'm sure anyone who has read much of my blog knows that I don't think that problems that afflict whole groups, like sexist or racist hiring practices, are things that everyone should care about. I just don't think that lets you off the hook from looking after yourself.

Or at least, things go one hell of a lot better if you act as if this is strictly true.

This is closer to what I mean.

Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde said...

I mean that the particular PI I'm thinking of ignored the bench entirely in favor of grant-writing. This would be fine except that when I say "ignored the bench" I mean "didn't even watch either of these two students do experiments EVER" and in one case did not ever visit the room where behavioral experiments were being done. She generally spent her time shut up in the office and did not attempt to help her students (all of whom were second years) troubleshoot their myriad problems. She also gave bad advice to one of the grad students about the prep, due to her own lack of knowledge; but since the grad student was equally inexperienced, that led to a waste of several months. There are more horrible things but I don't want to go into them. Anyhow, in sum, she gave them zero useful mentoring. That's what I mean by "chewed up."

And one of the students actually had an NSF fellowship. So in fact, the PI was getting her labor for free. (Ok, health insurance, but really....) That's what I mean when I say you need the PI more than the PI needs you. Also, one person can get a hot-shit paper to get the PI close to tenure, while remaining students founder. But nobody cares about the other students. They care that the PI got one hot-shit paper.

acmegirl said...

Wow, just saw a typo -

And I'm sure anyone who has read much of my blog knows that I don't think that problems that afflict whole groups, like sexist or racist hiring practices, are not things that everyone should care about.

ie: everyone should care about these things.

Don't ask why I'm looking at comments two months after the fact...

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