Posted by: Dan | June 14, 2007

The Makings of a Good Mentor

This week’s Nature has an invaluable feature: A Guide for Mentors. It’s my experience that every research supervisor should at least take a look at this, many should read it thoroughly, and some need the themes of this guide forcibly read and reread to them (as mentors sometimes have zero social-skills). But, I digress, and will simply quote some viewpoints from the article that resonate with me.

Oh, and if you are a mentor, don’t forget to take a self-assessment.


When things go wrong, it is important to find out why things happened the way they did. There could be personal factors (sickness, relationship break-ups) that contribute to unhappy decisions or results. Although I may not be able to provide the solution to personal problems, I can provide a sympathetic ear as well as advice or direction to support services.

Appreciating individual differences:

Again it is important to cater for personal traits. Some of my student colleagues need to dot every i and cross every t as they design a set of critical experiments that we have all agreed are important. Others, with, I suspect, an equal success rate, need to jump in, risk making a mess of a few highly critical experiments but gain an instant understanding of either what not or what to try. Allowing both approaches is sometimes difficult, but necessary.


She treats her colleagues, regardless of whether they are doing a PhD or if they are a fellow professor, with the same high regard. In doing so, M inspires confidence in her collaborators.


I believe that it is too easy for mentors to create grand (manipulative) plans for their younger colleagues. I believe it is important for mentors to suppress the desire to paint the grand picture, instead it is imperative that they learn to understand their colleagues and how to assist them to fulfil their dreams.

Balancing direction and self-direction:

His advice was almost always given in the form of suggestions, so that we were able to digest them and form our own judgment about their worth. With hindsight I recognize this as a deliberate strategy designed to encourage independence of thought and critical thinking. As a PhD student, M made me feel like his collaborator. This is probably the greatest single lesson I have tried to take from M and apply to my own research group, to encourage and prompt students to follow their own ideas and judgement, and to provide an environment where this is possible.

If and when your ideas did not come to fruition there was no criticism, only encouragement to learn from the mistakes made, if any, and encouragement to develop other avenues of scientific attack. This ‘judgement’-free environ allowed one to attempt to implement challenging techniques, knowing that there was no ‘skin off one’s nose’ for trying.

The art of questioning and listening:

The major aspects of practice and personality are her ability to listen patiently, even when she knows better, and to point the mentored person to a more complete understanding of the issues implicit in a particular problem. This she does with deceptively simple questions that frequently do not elicit an immediate response, but ultimately allow a more rational interpretation of all the facts.

Being widely read and widely receptive:

Most researchers have a pet hypothesis and an individual approach to their particular area of science. Sometimes that dogma and limitations in breadth may be exposed and challenged by students or colleagues. As a result, you need to be open to ideas and solutions from all other disciplines. You need to be ready to accept that you might be wrong, to acknowledge and study new directions you have never considered, and to congratulate your mentees for taking you down that pathway.

Most importantly as a mentor, don’t hang over your mentee’s desk/lab bench, don’t play the blame game when an experiment is unsuccessful; do acknowledge good work, do cultivate a lively exchange of ideas in all directions, and do foster independence in and out of the lab. If you can’t do those things, don’t expect members of your lab to remain productive and/or cooperative.



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