Building Healthy Mentor/Mentee Relationships

 In mentorship, PhD/Postdoc Blog

In October, I had the exciting opportunity to attend the Women in Science Conference at the University of Notre Dame. In my previous post, I gave tips for navigating the conference scene. This month I take a deep dive into one of my biggest takeaways of the experience. While at this conference, I took part in a workshop on mentoring presented by Micha Kilburn, Director of Outreach and Education at The Joint Institute for Nuclear Astrophysics. I found this session to be enlightening, as it allowed me to explore key characteristics of healthy mentor/mentee relationships.

As graduate students, we often end up playing the parts of mentee and mentor simultaneously. For many graduate students, the principal investigator (PI) serves as a mentor, while undergraduate students in the lab are mentees for whom you are responsible. We can often find ourselves in this position with little training or adequate understanding of what makes an effective mentor/mentee relationship. In order to address these concerns, I will discuss the roles of mentor and mentee separately in this post.

What Makes a Good Mentor

The first distinction that I want to make is that a mentor is not an advisor. Although an advisor can be a mentor, they do not always take on this role. According to Kilburn, mentoring is both a personal and professional relationship that aims to optimize the educational and social experience of the mentee. Mentoring is a skill that takes time to develop, but the workshop I attended provided a few key pieces of advice for new mentors that I would like to share with you:

Good mentoring requires time. Mentoring is an immense time commitment, but when done properly will benefit both the mentor and mentee. As a mentor, patience and listening are necessary to build the foundation of the relationship. Do not push your student to discuss issues they find uncomfortable; instead, always encourage your mentee based upon what they do feel comfortable sharing.

Good mentoring is built on trust. There are several ways to build trust between a mentor and mentee. For example, sharing your own experiences, successes and failures, will break down walls and encourage the mentee to reciprocate. Going to simple and professional activities together, such as a scientific talk, can also help build a more trusting relationship.

Good mentoring considers the specific goals of the mentee. With time and trust you will begin to understand the mentees distinct goals and what they need to achieve them. Providing clear instructions and demonstrations of skills previously unknown to the student is a necessity. Nevertheless, do not be overbearing, as this will not allow the student to learn as effectively. Giving constructive, yet supportive, feedback in a way that will lead to the greatest growth in your mentee.


How to Succeed as a Mentee

When thinking about mentorship, the focus tends to be on the mentor. However, to nurture a truly valuable relationship, we must also learn how to be a good mentee. While many of the points discussed above apply to the mentee as well, there are a few other things a mentee can do to be successful:

Set appropriate goals. There are four areas suggested by Kilburn to focus on when setting goals as either a mentee or mentor: 1) Technical, 2) Intellectual, 3) Personal, and 4) Interpersonal. Though the aims of each person will be unique, it is important to target all four areas in order to establish a successful mentor/mentee relationship. Development of both short- and long-term goals is also useful in order to stay organized during your graduate school career. Then, after selecting appropriate objectives, it is important to create concrete action plans that can be implemented during a reasonable timeline.

Have multiple mentors. In addition to choosing goals, another way to succeed as a mentee is to seek out multiple mentors. In graduate school, it may be easy to isolate yourself to relying solely on your PI or more advanced students/postdocs in your research group as mentors. Yet, having mentors with a diversity in skills, age, and personalities will only be beneficial. Be proactive in cultivating relationships with multiple mentors from different groups, departments, and even universities/colleges. If you are unsure where to find these other mentors, I would start by looking for mentorship programs at your university/college. Many schools already have programs in place that are easy to join. If your university does not have these types of programs there are many online communities, such as MentorNet or the Chemistry Women Mentorship Network, to get involved in.

“It takes two to tango” is an age-old cliché that is certainly applicable to mentorship. In a healthy mentoring relationship, the responsibilities should be shared between the mentor and mentee and should benefit both parties. It is also worth noting that in a previous post, Matthew Davidson highlights the importance of good mentorship for the mental health of students.

Until next month,

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    • […] Last month, I examined the important characteristics of a healthy mentor/mentee relationships. Today I would like to focus on another relationship we often find ourselves in during our graduate or postdoc career: collaborations! Similar to mentor/mentee relationships, collaborations can provide a great opportunity for growth when done correctly. Whether you are working with a student in your group or a researcher at another university, there are multiple strategies you can use to build a fulfilling collaboration. This past year I had the chance to cooperate with another 3rd year graduate student in my group; as peers, we used the following strategies to successfully finish and publish our work together. […]

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