An undergraduate student comes into a lab for a summer project. For the sake of argument, let’s assume this is a standard sort of undergrad research experience project lasting ten weeks, with a student coming in from another institution.
The undergraduate is paired with a senior graduate student. The undergraduate wants to do a molecular biology project. The grad student and her professor decide it is too far beyond the skills of the undergraduate, too unlikely to yield anything productive, and give the undergraduate a microbiology project instead. The undergrad sulks and does sub-par work, because he is not doing the sort of project he wanted to do.
(There were a lot of “sulky undergraduates” in the case studies were saw listed, actually.)
The questions were things like, should the student be put on a different project? They were legitimate questions, but I was interested the case study implied that the grad student / post doc in this case was a mentor to the undergraduate.
From my perspective, this was not a mentoring problem. This was a management problem.
If there was any mentoring going on in that case study, it would have been between the professor and the graduate student. But as presented, it didn’t sound like even that was happening.
“Mentoring” has become overused in academic circles, because mentoring is seen as a good thing. Which it is. But it does not cover all supervisory interactions between more senior and more junior individuals. I was a little flabbergasted when one person said:
Mentoring can be a sentence.
I disagree. Saying one sentence is not even close to being mentoring, no matter how insightful that one sentence may be. To me, mentoring is a long term professional relationship. When I think about people who I consider mentors, or people who I think I have mentored, those are all people that I knew and worked with for at least a year. Most were several years of continual, regular, face to face contact and discussion.
You can’t become a mentor to a student who you have never met before and who you will only work with for ten weeks. You can supervise. You can manage. You can instruct. You can teach. These are important skills; some of them overlap with mentoring. But supervising someone is not necessarily mentoring them, although it may develop into a proper mentoring relationship – indeed, the hope is that it will. You can stay in contact with that summer student, monitor their progress, and continue to give advice. That’s being a mentor.
If you want to be a mentor, or see someone you want as a mentor, you have to be in it for the long haul.
Additional: Comments coming in on Twitter...
At least those 10 week students got a graduate student assigned to them. I was not as lucky... My experience that that anyone who claimed they were interested in mentoring me as an undergrad was interested in free bitch work.
When I did summer research as an undergrad, my faculty “mentor” was out of the country and unreachable almost the whole time.