Good and Bad Mentoring

This topic keeps coming up amongst the trainees and I have an area of confusion.

What does it mean that your mentoring has been bad? Is it all about *outcome*?

Is it about lab favoritism?

Does your mentor fail to advance the careers of everyone? Or is it just that you were not the favored one?

Are there specific things your mentor should and could have done for you that you can mention? Did you only recognize this is retrospect or was it frustrating at the time?

26 responses so far

  • Anonymouse de Cowardice says:

    I can count my sins legion in grad school, but I can lay a few right at my mentor's office door. These were frustrating at the time, and are anecdota for a lab culture.

    1) Three years spent on a project that had to be dropped, in part because one lab member had a key piece of equipment on their rig, and would only let me use it on Tuesday between 2 and 4. This is the kind of thing that you have to do every day for a week, and then you have the technique. I spent years trying alternative approaches. Mentor would not step in and make the post-doc let me use the equipment to do the project. "Trainees need to learn to deal with difficult people."

    2) That project went on far too long in the face of technical difficulties. "Trainees need to learn when and how to calibrate their effort."

    3) Bully lab member who would go in for the (allegedly) intellectual kill during lab meetings was never reined in, even when it got abusive, as it often did. See: "Trainees need to learn to deal with difficult people." and "You have to expect your ideas will be challenged."

    While the things the mentor said were true, and yes, one must learn to deal with difficult people etc., there is a line here. Leaving trainees to learn these things without the benefit of the mentor's input--actual training--would get identified as bad management in the business world. I would have finished sooner and published more with actual mentoring. Or even reasonable management.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I agree that a key role of a lab head with multiple trainees is to maintain some semblance of referee status. There will be competing interests under even the best of circumstances and "resolve it amongst yourselves" is a cop out.

  • BioDataSci says:

    Being treated like a technician rather than a mentee is a big frustration. I can understand that today's funding climate is challenging, but advisors only thinking of their own needs is not an effective long term strategy.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I would like to explore what "treated like a technician" means b/c it comes up frequently. How do you distinguish these roles?

  • BioDataSci says:

    In my experience, being treated like a technician means that an advisor sees her/his postdoc only as someone who can advance the advisor's career but not necessarily the postdoc's career. I do understand that these go hand in hand to some extent. But in my case, this has manifested itself as my never being able to pursue my own research interests. She decides what research projects I will pursue and mostly how they will be done. I'm OK with doing that to some extent, but as a mentee I would hope to have at least some freedom and resources to pursue my own ideas.

    Another manifestation is that I am never encouraged to attend department seminars or conferences because that would take away from my getting (her) work done.

    Another way is asking me to train her students. To some extent, this type of activity is part of my being a good lab citizen. But when I'm being asked to do it because she doesn't care to bother with it, it becomes less satisfying.

    I'm certainly making her sound more evil than she is. She does have good qualities as an advisor. But hopefully this helps explain where I'm coming from.

  • AnonPostDoc says:

    My current postdoctoral advisor is a great person and incredibly supportive of me. However, that does not make him a good mentor. I've thought a lot about what could have been better about my postdoc mentoring, and I think it comes down to three specific things.

    1) The most important is simply failing to think about the difference between a tenured professor and the tail end of his career and a postdoc just starting out. When I joined the lab, it was to work on a project that had the potential to be exciting, but was also potentially risky. It was something that my mentor was quite excited about, but in the end it didn't really pan out the way we hoped. There are a lot of reasons for that (among which was my mentor's reluctance to invest money when we had it, for fear of spending down the grant too quickly, which was probably not a wise choice since we couldn't get the grant renewed in the end), but the real problem for me was that my mentor didn't really think about the costs to me of being on a risky project that mostly didn't pan out (although we still got a few minor papers out of it, so it could have been worse).

    2) Related to this, I got some in retrospect rather bad advice from my mentor about side projects. Since my main project was risky, I knew enough to know that I needed to have a side project, but I didn't really think strategically about it. One of my weaknesses is a bit of scientific ADD - I get excited about new topics easily, and since my research is mostly computational I can jump around a fair bit. This means that while I've been pretty productive despite my main project not working out as well as it could have, there is no coherence to my CV. I have a paper or two on four or five different topics, and developing a career narrative has been tricky. In retrospect, I should have focused on developing a coherent side project that could become my main line of research going forward. Now, as fairly senior postdoc and with the benefit of hindsight about where I went wrong my first few years, I've managed to develop a solid project that I am excited about and I think has potential, but this is what I should have been thinking about five years ago. Instead of giving me advice along these lines, whenever I talked to my mentor about career strategy and side projects, the advice I got was "go for it, that sounds interesting." I needed to learn to focus, but was never told that.

    3) Finally, I have not received any even vaguely useful guidance about searching for jobs from my mentor. I have some geographic constraints on my job search, and my attitude coming into my postdoc was to just publish and something will work out. This may have been an okay strategy 10 or 15 years ago, but in the current climate it hasn't really worked (although I've done pretty well with the publishing part). When left grad school, I thought I was kind of a special snowflake and that I wouldn't need a strategy to get a job (how could I have been so naive!). By reading blogs (including this one) and living life I think I've gained some wisdom about this and I certainly know there are no special snowflakes (or if there exist, I'm not one). But it sure would have helped to have been told when I started my postdoc that I needed a carefully thought out plan, and to have been given some guidance in developing that plan.

    What I needed from my postdoc mentor was someone who could help me learn to think strategically about my career and my research, since in hindsight I realize that my inability to do this was one of my biggest weaknesses (and were it not for science blogs, would probably still be one of my biggest weaknesses). In general, I think a good mentor is someone who can see the strengths and weaknesses of a trainee and help them develop the strengths and overcome (or at least recognize) the weaknesses, and my mentor completely failed to do that.

  • AlmostNotAPostdoc says:

    My postdoc mentor has been a "bad" mentor if you can even call them a mentor. It is something that wasn't obvious right away, but they are in such stark contrast to my "good" PhD advisor, that 6 months in I was worried.

    1)No help/even hindering job placement. I went on the job market this past fall and it was like pulling teeth to get my advisor to send recommendations, even with plenty (over 2 weeks) of time to submit. I had schools emailing me, because they had not received his recommendation and wanted to narrow down their search. No amount of emailing/pleading worked. He finally sent them in ~2weeks past the deadline for some of the schools. For a different coworker he gave no assistance with finding a postdoc position for her, she prepared the list, and all he commented on was "well good luck". It was the same story when one of the people on her list wanted a recommendation from our advisor, he never sent one in.

    2) I had hoped to learn more about grant/fellowship application preparation. Postdoc advisor likes to wait until the last possible moment to work on anything. I have learned nothing about grant preparation, and the guidance I received when preparing an NIH fellowship was him looking my proposal over 2 hrs before it was due (when I had a draft of it done over a week ahead of time). Which is actually more time than he spent on some other coworkers proposals.

    3) Being a bully. Threatening change in paper authorship or ability to graduate when something isn't done the way he wants it and in the timeframe he wants it accomplished.

    4) Not having a set of lab rules/regulations that everyone needs to follow. This means that he can change the goal posts for graduation/vacation/etc. whenever he feels like it.

    My PhD advisor was the complete opposite of this and working with them enabled me to have a solid enough background to escape this latest "mentor".

  • Ola says:

    One example I've seen a lot, is where the publication strategy is wholly geared toward the needs of the mentor and not the trainees. When you're a post-doc' looking to move up the ladder you NEED to publish a lot. When the mentor has a stick in his ass about everything going to C/N/S or bust, that seriously gets in the way of career progress for the trainees. For the mentor's CV, the lab is publishing maybe 2 glam mag' publications a year, so the mentor looks good on paper, but the 6 trainees in the lab are getting screwed because they're each only getting a single paper every 3 years. As a mentor, you have to allow your trainees to publish a few "bread and butter" papers and review articles, just to get their names out there in the literature. Fearing such low-rank papers will "dilute your impact" is being a selfish tit.

  • BioDataSci says:

    My experience also reflects what Ola describes. And being accused that I "don't care" about the research because I want to just get the paper published now that it has gone through 7-8 C/N/S rejections.

  • Anon says:

    This topic keeps coming up amongst the trainees and I have an area of confusion.

    What does it mean that your mentoring has been bad? Is it all about *outcome*?

    Is it about lab favoritism?

    Does your mentor fail to advance the careers of everyone? Or is it just that you were not the favored one?

    Are there specific things your mentor should and could have done for you that you can mention? Did you only recognize this is retrospect or was it frustrating at the time?

    I don't think good/bad mentoring is all about the outcome though it seems like it can make a HUGE difference in the outcome.

    In my (limited) experience, a mentor's worth can't be measured by the outcome of the trainee because trainees have multiple mentors who might pick up the slack of the advisor. Also, there is no way to know how successful a trainee would have been with a different mentor. If one person says their mentor was bad, it's hard to tell if they just had different expectations of what a mentor should be but if many past trainees have similar complaints it's more likely the mentor just wasn't very good. This seems obvious to me but you asked.

    Some specific things mentors can do, based on my experiences:

    1) Make time for their trainees. Trainees at all stages have some degree of autonomy but their mentor should be willing to help guide them scientifically when needed.

    2) Do the things they say they're going to do and provide trainees, in a timely manner, with the materials they need to do the work. Of course mentors are busy, sometimes things are delayed and trainees need to learn to understand that but it becomes an issue when the delays impair sufficient progress on a project.

    3) Be clear about expectations and provide useful feedback.

    In my case, it was clear during the time with that mentor, not just in retrospect.

  • Anon says:

    Oops, copied/pasted the post into the comment box so I didn't have to scroll and then forgot to delete it.

  • becca says:

    Good mentoring: when trainee is struggling (e.g. with a manuscript prep), discuss how to break down task into small units. Big picture, I think it's about staying optimistic and future-focused.
    Bad mentoring: well, there is the keeping known sexual harassers around issue #YesAllTraineeWomen Other stuff: saying "oh, that should have been easy" when things don't work

    Ultimately though, I'm pretty impossible to mentor, apparently, so I don't know what it's supposed to look like really.

  • drugmonkey says:

    as my never being able to pursue my own research interests. She decides what research projects I will pursue and mostly how they will be done. I'm OK with doing that to some extent, but as a mentee I would hope to have at least some freedom and resources to pursue my own ideas.

    This is what I'm curious about. I hear it a lot in the context of "bad mentoring". But I also hear a lot of what sounds like trainees that think they get to do whatever the heck they want in a lab and preferably stuff that has not conceivable connection to "the PI's work". Meaning, in a lot of ways, the science that falls under the grants that are funding the lab.

    What I tend to hear is "Sure, the grant is on Bunny Hopping but I want to work on some C. elegans model of digging behavior".

    My take is that when I have a trainee funded on a grant (or grants) that they are expected to do a big chunk of the work spelled out in the proposal but also to apply their own creativity to how we go about doing it. This is what I did as a postdoc. It worked out well for me and for the lab head and for the lab itself. In essence I took my own core interests from before that postdoc stint, applied them within and around the funded project in place in the lab when I arrived and turned it into pubs and a successful subsequent grant application. We did enough credible work on the original project that this line of work eventually received additional funding in that lab as well.

    I have definitely seen situations in which the postdoc was not making good progress on the project that they were ostensibly brought in to work on. I can assure you that this frustrates the PI. I assume, doing a fair bit of projecting here, that when the PI does not see the grant's project advancing, she or he is not going to be receptive to the trainees desire for resources to pursue their "own ideas".

    I can see that in such situations the trainee might whine about how the PI is doing crappy mentoring and treats them like a technician. If the work under the grant is not advancing, then the PI only nags and complains about that...and is not keen on any experimental distractions. Probably not keen on any "alternate career" distractions either.

  • BioDataSci says:

    I hear your points, and I understand that this can come off as whining. And maybe it is in my case. However, I will say that in my case I can't really take anything from my main project with me. I have worked long and hard on that project, and it has been successful, but now I would like to have some freedom (under my current advisor's tutelage) to pursue a new direction along with continuing to support the lab's efforts. To me, one difference between a technician position and a postdoc position is that the postdoc should be able to do some things that primarily benefit the postdoc.

    Part of this may also come down to the fact that my area of expertise is quite different from my advisor's, so my research interests are usually not interesting to my advisor.

  • drugmonkey says:

    there is no coherence to my CV

    It's tough to build this out of "side projects", I agree. Also very hard to establish when a good number of lab people are all contributing to a small number of high JIF type of publications. i agree that one things mentors should be doing is helping a given trainee craft the story of themselves within the lab. so far, I have been fortunate enough to have as many or more distinct project lines as I have postdocs. this helps permit them each to create a story of their unique contribution.

    What I needed from my postdoc mentor was someone who could help me learn to think strategically about my career and my research, since in hindsight I realize that my inability to do this was one of my biggest weaknesses

    It probably hasn't escaped your attention that a big part of my motivation for starting this blog was the fact that our entire industry sucks at this. Fault is on mentors and trainees alike, as well as on the institutional structures and emergent cultures. It is so prevalent that I am not sure it is a specific knock on any particular mentor. some are bettter, some are worse. some trainees are receptive and many are clueless (and even resistant). Definitely a thing for us all to be aware of and to discuss within the mentoring relationship.

    __
    My PhD advisor was the complete opposite of this and working with them enabled me to have a solid enough background to escape this latest "mentor".

    Yeh. all I can say is that one good thing about having several mentoring experiences is that it helps you to see the bad and the good. I had a couple of really bad ones as a trainee that were mostly down to the PIs' own career problems at the time, not ill will. I also had one fantastic one.
    __
    Fearing such low-rank papers will "dilute your impact" is being a selfish...

    I have never understood this mentality. If the PI is getting her high-profile papers, what does it matter that they are also publishing a boatload of lesser papers so that several trainees have the chance to establish their own brand a little bit better? I've seen it in action and it is not pretty at all in terms of how it affects the trainees in those kinds of labs.

    __

    If one person says their mentor was bad, it's hard to tell if they just had different expectations of what a mentor should be but if many past trainees have similar complaints it's more likely the mentor just wasn't very good. This seems obvious to me but you asked.

    In an era in which certain desired end-results seem hard to come by, it seems inevitable to me that you will have an expectations/outcome mismatch for many trainees (if you are a PI that trains many postdocs). I assume it looks particularly egregious to the person who didn't get a particular good outcome that the next postdoc over manage to achieve that outcome. the "good project", the "good paper", the "good job"....all similar issues. this is one of the reasons I was hoping for specifics in this thread, so thanks for offering them up, folks.

  • AnonPostDoc says:

    It probably hasn't escaped your attention that a big part of my motivation for starting this blog was the fact that our entire industry sucks at this. Fault is on mentors and trainees alike, as well as on the institutional structures and emergent cultures. It is so prevalent that I am not sure it is a specific knock on any particular mentor. some are bettter, some are worse. some trainees are receptive and many are clueless (and even resistant). Definitely a thing for us all to be aware of and to discuss within the mentoring relationship.

    This blog has been enormously helpful to me, for sure. I've also gotten a lot of useful advice from friends who were postdocs in my PhD lab, and so are a few years ahead of me on the career track. One thing I am realizing is that many of the older folks (the PI of the lab I am in now is nearing retirement) just don't seem to pay attention to how much the situation for younger scientists has changed in the past 5, 10, 15 years. Maybe some people who have been in science longer than me have a different opinion, but it seems like a lot of the strategic thinking necessary now was less important in the 1980s and 1990s, when there were more resources to go around, long postdocs were not the norm, and competition for faculty positions was not so cutthroat. I think we as a community of scientists have a hard time explicitly acknowledging how important strategic thinking has become to success (the myth of the meritocracy, perhaps), and in particular the PIs who didn't "come of age" in the current era have a very hard time training their mentees to be prepared for today's world.

  • HSR.anon says:

    I do clinical/health services research (I mostly lurk on this blog for grantsmanship purposes), so my experience is from a different perspective. However, as someone who just finished a PhD, this post caught my eye.

    In my recent experience, good mentorship is a lot about committing time to work with mentees, and finding a balance between treating them like adults (critically reviewing the research) but also knowing when to do a little hand-holding (first grant application, academic job market packet). I also have observed that mentorship is a relationship -- some trainees expect that mentorship will consist of ground-breaking research ideas and accompanying resources being dropped into their laps. I had to work hard to build a mentoring team of 4 faculty members with different but complementary areas of expertise; this worked well and I am off to a tenure-track position in a top-20 research institution next fall. Mentors and mentees alike need to demand the best from each other.

    Another way to think about it: there is a reason that the F31/F32 requires such a detailed description of training and mentorship -- try your best to actually execute that plan and everyone benefits.

  • Students and post-docs in my lab who have earned their own fellowships or career awards get a fuckeloade more freedom to pursue their "own interests" (whatever the fucke that even means) than those who are paid by my research grants. As far as I am aware, this is pretty much the norm. So a word of advice to anyone who is complaining that they don't have "scientific freedom" in their mentor's lab: Get your own fellowship or career award, and you will be FREE!

  • Busy says:

    All supervisors make mistakes. The real question is if there were any major ones that stood out?

  • clueless noob says:

    My experience as a postdoc supported by RPGs (2, with different PIs) was that I was a technician, not a trainee. I was hired because of what I already knew how to do, and was paid like an inexpensive staff scientist (high $50's to start), albeit with the postdoc title and fewer benefits. There wasn't much by way of mentoring outside of weekly lab meetings. I'd guess that this approach is fairly common since at most institutions the fringe benefit rate is significantly lower for postdocs than for staff ( == cheaper employee).

  • icearoni says:

    Being spineless = allowing people treat your trainees poorly.

    Never holding employees accountable = zero productivity from the unmotivated and bad morale amongst the motivated.

    Checking out mentally and leaving your motivated trainees to do nearly everything on their own = you can't help them when they really need it (i.e. when they request constructive criticism) because your head is not in the game.

    Not reading your trainees' manuscript drafts = not publishing for years.

    Demanding far too little rigor and/or arguing against suggestions for more rigor = unethical practices.

    You can be a perfectly delightful supervisor and a super neat dude and still have these flaws, and your trainees often won't recognize it as dysfunctional.

  • e-rock says:

    The worst thing my mentor did for me was always say my ideas were great and defend my stupid ideas blindly to the faculty (making this individual difficult for them to deal with) instead of forcing me to improve them; papers & drafts were only copy-edited and not challenged for the scientific ideas. Then WHAM - REALITY! when it goes out to peer review. I had to seek outsiders for (which you should do anyway but not solely rely on) the substance.

    For this reason, I am hard ass and tell my trainees when an idea is bad, why, and what they can do about it. I put them on the spot, make them uncomfortable for a bit ... let them flounder and see how far they can swim, then throw them a life-raft and explain that I'm just preparing them for the real world -- it's okay to be wrong in my office, but it could cost your job out there. I also tell them to talk to someone else about it because I might still be wrong. I encourage them to tell me, too, if they hear something different somewhere else. One way to make them feel better after telling them how they might have totally missed some obvious giant key fact that everyone in the field knows, is that I made a similar mistake in the past and what the consequences were.

  • icearoni says:

    yes, e-rock! I had the same experience.

  • cycloprof says:

    I have seen and experienced good and bad mentoring and one alarming trend I have observed in the short time since I was a trainee is the creation of the "compliance atmosphere" on campuses. This compliance at all costs atmosphere is changing the face of mentoring as criticizing trainees (in particular graduate students) is becoming too dangerous for junior faculty as many feel the first recourse to any problem (perceived or real) is to complain higher up the food chain.

    This combined with administrators that apparently feel if someone has complained, there must be a real problem and it must be the mentors fault....no need to investigate both sides of the story (must be an evil mentor or bust!) is creating a batch of very entitled yet poorly educated trainees.

    The inmates are running the asylum in some places now and those clueless, entitled trainees are going to create further drag on an already sub-optimal system.

  • AnonLady says:

    Ola and BioDataScience have both encountered the type of Bad Mentor I had for (mercifully) only a year. There's a sure sign that this person is a Bad Mentor: they have a VERY high turn over rate of people in their lab. People don't want to leave good, productive labs. Also, they condone other people in the lab (or their lab favorites, at least) bullying other newer and younger trainees. I've lived this, and it's not worth it for all the glam mag publications in the freaking world.

  • AnonLabmonkey says:

    Bad mentors are blatant about their favoritism
    Bad mentors give their students all stick and no carrot.
    It's not a mentor's job to tell you the answer, but a bad mentor won't even help you think about where you might start looking.
    Bad mentors do not realize that chronic stress and sleep deprivation for everyone is very bad, and sometimes people have sickness that takes more than a day to get better.
    Bad mentors are therefore sometimes responsible for the entire lab having chronic bronchitis for the entire winter.
    Bad mentors neglect their staff until there is a problem, get angry about the results of their neglect, and fail to realize it was preventable.
    Bad mentors tell their staff to do something, refuse to use their power to make sure they have what they need to do it, and then blame them when they fail.
    Bad mentors think deadlines do not apply to them.
    Bad mentors habitually take months to read manuscripts.
    Bad mentors hire more people than they can possibly mentor effectively, and sit back and let the weak ones drown.
    Bad mentors tell you to do things that are their responsibility, and then go on vacation while you work all weekend.
    Bad mentors do not respect boundaries.

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