Choosing a graduate mentor

Upon the start of my PhD and towards the end of it, I was faced with the choice of choosing a lab mentor. Having heard horror stories about bad mentors, this felt like a daunting task. I was unsure of what to look for and what questions to ask.

Here, I will discuss factors I have found to be helpful in choosing a mentor from the perspective of both seeking one and being one. It is important to seek mentoring from multiple sources. However, if you find it critical to seek mentorship outside of lab to succeed, then your mentor is not doing their job. No mentor can satisfy all yours needs but they should satisfy the basics. 

If you find it critical to seek mentorship outside of lab to succeed, then your mentor is not doing their job.

Ask around and contemplate. Ask students, postdocs, and program administrators. You will learn a lot from what people don’t say and might need to read in between the lines.

Some good questions to ask members of the lab:
-If given the chance to do it all over, would you choose to join this lab?
-Are there any questions I might have forgotten to ask, that you think I should?

In addition, many mentors are now on Twitter and you can learn a lot about them based on how they interact with others.

Reflect on what you need as a mentee. We often hear to choose a mentor that fits our personality, but what does that even mean? Think about what you want to achieve and the tools you need to achieve it.

Involvement. One issue to consider is how involved you would like your mentor to be. If you are a kind of person that needs a mentor that is very much hands-on, find a lab that will give you that. If you do better when given your space, find a mentor that does so. Sometimes mentors that are typically very hands on might not be if they have taken an admin position.

People differ in their need for an involved vs hands-off mentor. Nonetheless, senior lab members should have some control of the direction of their research. Therefore, ask about the mentor’s management style.

Communication. Consider the type of feedback style that works for you. For me, it was important to have a mentor that provided positive feedback. Although it is important to not always rely on external validation, it is okay to want a mentor that provides some form of validation. Feedback, positive or negative, should be constructive and timely.

I have personally found weekly meetings with my mentor be helpful. In addition, weekly lab meetings allowed me to be aware of other research being done in the lab. Not all mentors or lab have weekly meetings. Ask if the lab you are interested in does so.

Advocacy and allyship. Get yourself a mentor that is willing to talk about the current social issues in your field. It is important that they are able to recognize the problems, so they are able to address them if they arise within the lab. Such issues include mental health and the advancement of white women and people of color. A mentor should support you and speak up for you. They should create a safe lab environment, and such labs do exist. Don’t feel as if you need to settle in a bad lab just because “that’s how it is.”

Don’t feel as if you need to settle in a bad lab just because “that’s how it is.”

Opportunities. What opportunities will your mentor encourage or allow you to take? What opportunities do you need to take to advance your professional development? Consider opportunities such as attending conferences, applying to grants, teaching, internships, etc. Ask if you would be funded to attend conferences, and if yes, how many per year? Think about the opportunities you would like to take advantage of and if you were be given the chance to do so.

Funding. Does the lab have funding? You can look up the funding history of a lab on NIH RePORTER. If you are a postdoc, ask the mentor how long they are willing to fund you. Importantly, ask about the funding history of past lab members.

Ask about the funding history of past lab members.

Publications. Do a quick PubMed (or search engine of choice) search and look at the frequency at which they publish. In addition, it is good to see the quality of publications. This includes both the quality of the journal and the quality of the science. Inquire about the manuscript and grant writing process in the lab. For manuscripts and grants, do the mentees write the first draft and refine with edits from the mentor? Some mentors prefer to write everything, while some give very little feedback.

Lab composition. The makeup of the lab can give you insight on mentorship style. Advising students and postdocs requires different skills and a postdoc-heavy lab might not be the best place for graduate students. Look at the history of past lab members. Keep in mind how long it took students to complete their PhD, what lab members went on to do, and whether any lab members left early. The length it takes for students to graduate should reflect that of the field. A variation from such is something to inquire about. A mentor that has many lab members go on to academia, would be a good place for someone who wants to do the same.  At the same time, a mentor who wants their lab members to only go into a certain field, such as academia, might be one to avoid. Lab members leaving before their contract is finished is a huge red flag. Lastly, a bulk of mentoring occurs from senior lab members. A lab without any might mean you will have a more difficult time learning the techniques of the lab.

Rotations. If your program allows for rotations, maximize your time in the lab. Use this as a time to see whether this is a lab you would do well in. Keep an eye out for red (and green) flags. Often, rotations can be somewhat of a honeymoon period; don’t allow that make you ignore red flags. Watch the other lab members and see if they are stressed or anxious, especially about meeting with the mentor. Another important thing to notice is how much time members are expected to be in lab. Being forced to work seven days a week is not healthy and should not be the norm. Work/life balance is vital and how it is valued in the lab is apparent during a lab rotation.

Notice how much time members are expected to be in lab. Being forced to work seven days a week is not healthy and should not be the norm.

Finally, often when talking about what lab to join, there is an emphasis on personality, but the science is important too. For example, in graduate school I wanted to learn and hone a particular technique, therefore I joined a lab in which I could do so. In addition, I wanted a lab that studied or was willing to ask questions I was interested in.

Ultimately, there were many factors I took into consideration before I chose my thesis and postdoc labs. As with any relationship, things were not always perfect with my mentors. However, I am happy with the choices I made and the guidance I received. What I needed and what worked for me, may not be the best choice for you. Each person is different, but hopefully this article will help you navigate your quest to find a mentor.

Feature image by Chancey June.

Nour Al-muhtasib
Nour Al-muhtasib

Nour is a postdoc at Yale University in New Haven, CT. Her work focuses on endocannabinoid modulation of neuronal inhibition in the primary visual cortex. Other topics she is passionate about include science education and communication, cats, and french fries. You can find her on twitter at @Nouronal.

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