Based on some conversations I’ve had with colleagues recently, I’m starting to wonder whether I should do more intensive mentoring* of the students in my lab, especially related to long term goals and whether they’re on track to achieve those goals.
To start out with what I currently do: almost all of the students who work in my lab are paired with a grad student or a postdoc. That person does the day-to-day mentoring on a particular project. In addition, I meet with students more sporadically, with those meetings focusing more on bigger picture things – what projects they are working on, what their career goals are, applying for summer research positions, applying to grad school, etc. It’s tailored to the student’s interests, but, at the same time, I’m starting to wonder if it’s not specific or intensive enough.
My thoughts about this have been influenced by conversations with a few people (some at other schools), where it’s become clear that they are more. . . well, it’s hard to come up with the right word, but “proactive” and “intensive” both come to mind. These people will regularly go through their students transcripts with them, talking about what courses they’re taking, how they’re doing in those courses, what they need to change about how they’re studying/preparing, etc. This is done in the context of their goals – for example, if their goal is to go to grad school in Ecology, are they taking the right courses? Are they doing well in them? If not, what can they change about how they’re studying? Is there additional information that could be included in a letter of recommendation that would help explain a low grade?
I can see how this could be really useful, especially for students who don’t have other sources of this sort of information (e.g., first generation college students). I was pretty clueless about all these things as an undergrad — neither of my parents were traditional college students (my mother has a college degree, but she went to college as an adult after having children; my father does not have a college degree), and no one in my family had pursued an academic path. I think of how important some conversations were in helping me figure things out. For example, I very clearly remember a conversation with someone from my dorm floor my freshman year. In that conversation, he referred to people who were “just getting by” and then explained that, by that, he meant people who were getting B’s. I had been pretty happy with my B’s up until that point, and that conversation made me start thinking a lot harder about how I was doing, what I could change. And then there were many informal conversations during my time working in a research lab as an undergrad that helped me learn about grad school, the application process, etc.
So why haven’t I done this with undergrads in my lab? Well, for some reason, until I had these conversations over the past few months, it simply hadn’t occurred to me. As I said earlier, we had general conversations, but I never sat down with a student and his/her transcripts. Now that it’s been pointed out to me that some do this, I’m still a little hesitant. When I try to think about why, I think it’s because it would probably be awkward, at least in some cases. Note that I don’t think that’s a good reason – I’m just being honest about why I’m hesitating. It also is something that seems more in the role of an academic advisor — though, to be honest, I have no idea how much of that the students who work in my lab get. Certainly in my first few years in college, I received very little from my formal academic advisors.
I’d be really interested in hearing about our readers’ experiences. Did you receive this sort of mentoring? If so, how effective was it? Do you think something could have been done differently to make it more effective? Was it from a research advisor or an academic advisor? If you didn’t receive this mentoring, do you think it would have helped? And, if you mentor students now: have you tried this more hands-on approach? How do students respond? Or do you think it’s something an academic advisor should be doing?
*After I tweeted to say I’d put this post in the queue, there was a question of whether I was referring to is mentoring or advising. That’s a good question. I’m not fully sure of the distinction between the two, but I think my use of “mentoring” is consistent with the way it’s used here, where it says “In the broad sense intended here, a mentor is someone who takes a special interest in helping another person develop into a successful professional.”