Tips for being a good mentor – grad student edition

Mentorship is a concept constantly brought up in professional settings, but, at least in my experience, the discussion generally takes place through the lens of the mentee: “How do I go about finding a good professional mentor?” “How do I expand my mentors beyond a research advisor or senior graduate student?” “Exactly how do I keep up contact with my mentor?”

But what about the other way around? What questions should the mentor be asking? If you search ‘tips for being a good mentor’ there are tons of articles with great content (e.g [1] [2] [3]). However, all of this advice is rather broad, and I want to write for grad students. Here, we’ll have a brief discussion on how to be a successful mentor, specifically in the context of an academic research setting.

As a senior undergraduate, circumstances beyond my control had me leading a research project originally conceived for a graduate research assistant. About 2-3 weeks in, I was told that my advisor had agreed to participation in a program that gave high school students research experience. And, just like every professor ever, my advisor was extraordinarily busy, and told me to just deal with it. So, I was getting an assistant.

Here are a few things I learned:

Preserve enthusiasm! Most students that voluntarily choose to join a research group are genuinely excited to be there. They most likely could have taken another course, or found a desk job. Above all else, it’s important to preserve their enthusiasm.

Give them a challenge, but be realistic. To start off, assign them technician type work — repetitive, simple tasks that are nonetheless critical to gathering results. Demonstrate exactly how to use the necessary equipment. Don’t leave them without a way to contact you.

Gradually increase responsibility. At first, ask them to prepare samples. Then, have them run tests. Then, teach them how to convert the data they generated into useful results. Then, ask them what they think is the next step.

Treat them as a member of the group. Formally introduce them to the rest of the group. Add them to the group’s google group. Encourage them to present at group meetings. Invite to any [age appropriate] social gatherings.

Admit any limits in your scope of knowledge. If they ask you a question you don’t know the answer to, just admit it. Say: “I’m not sure. I’ve never really thought about it. Maybe do a literature search? Let me know if you find something!”

Praise along the way. Not in a grandiose, sarcastic way. Just a quick “nice” or “good work” will be a major confidence boost to a younger/new student.

Offer feedback. If you think they’re moving in the right direction, tell them. If you think they aren’t, gently nudge them back on track.

Understand everyone is different. Of course — one of the most widely applicable pieces of advice ever. But it’s still valid. Some students might be slow, others fast. Some might work for a while and realize they don’t really like the research (don’t take that personally!)

Offer advice outside of research. Don’t do this unsolicited, but my high school student [wisely] asked me lots of questions about picking a college/picking a major/picking professional groups [of course I recommended SWE!]/picking recreational groups/deciding to join a sorority/even picking out a new laptop!
I’m sure I missed lots of great tips, so if you have one, please share! If you have a similar experience, let me know how it turned out!

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