26 July 2012

Mentoring in a minute?

At the Gulf Coast Summer Institute last week, we talked a bit about mentoring at the end of the week. We had this case study:

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...

Physicist Lisa:

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.

Rebecca Deatsman:

When I did summer research as an undergrad, my faculty “mentor” was out of the country and unreachable almost the whole time.

Ugh. Yeah


Sandlin said...

You raise a good point that we should distinguish between other supervisory interactions (like management) and mentoring. While I think there is a lot to be learned from being well-managed, I agree that mentoring should require a deeper relationship. It would be good for everyone to acknowledge those are different (and important) skill sets so that they can be developed.

Anonymous said...

Hm, I don't know. There are some students that come in to the lab that want guidance on things like: how to apply for graduate school, is there money to do research during the school year, how do you go about designing a research experiment? Discussing these things seem like mentoring to me because the student can gain immense amounts of knowledge in a short time from someone who really cares about their future (whether that's the PI or the grad student). Even though they're only there for 10 weeks, I think mentoring can be done in that time. Ideally, of course, it would continue after they left but I don't feel like mentoring is defined as "something that lasts longer than 10 weeks".


Zen Faulkes said...

Katie: I certainly don't want to undervalue those 10 week experiences; students can learn a lot from them. But giving someone good advice is still not necessarily mentoring them. The follow-up matters. After that 10 weeks is over, does that student feel free to contact you to ask even more questions? Then yes, that has developed into a mentoring relationship.

I agree that there is not going to be a hard line between "This is mentoring" and "This is not."

Science Refinery said...

Grad student whose summer undergrad just left today (*tear*) here. I guarantee he got more mentoring from me in the 8 week program than several grad students I know got from their PIs their whole first year.

But I do definitely get your point that there is a meaningful and important distinction between mentoring and managing/ supervising. Mentoring certainly can't be just a sentence (the very notion seems silly to me), but ~1 year min sounds too long.

Neuro Nerd said...

Mentoring is indeed something else than supervising someone. It is very hard to be a mentor to someone. Your 'styles' have to fit (how to handle difficult situations, etc), so with a lot of interactions with students you would never leave the supervision level.
An other side is also true though. Even if you have meaningful and longterm interaction and advice given to someone you are not automatically a mentor. Maybe someone just values your opinion on one subject. I think a mentor is someone who you trust to guide you on multiple levels. Very hard to accomplish indeed.


Zen Faulkes said...

Lauren: Yup. I’m not saying mentoring can’t be done in less time than a year. I’ve seen examples where mentoring relationships were established in less time.

And I'm certainly not saying that a year of contact guarantees a mentoring relationship. I've had students I worked with for that long that I don't think of myself as a mentor to them and I’m pretty sure the reverse is also true.

But where I think I've truly mentored that person, it’s been longer than a semester. That's has just been my experience. It may reflect the particular programs we have on our campus.

TheCellularScale said...

Are 'sulky undergrads' really a problem? I've only interacted with pretty enthusiastic, ready to try anything types.