Mentoring plans: a really useful tool for PIs and their lab members

Over the years, I’ve heard people talk about mentoring plans and individual development plans (IDPs), and always thought they sounded like they could be worth trying some time. But I never made it a high priority, and so never actually got to doing them with my lab. I got as far as starting to do an IDP for myself to test it out, but never got further than that. Then, last year, I had to do a mentoring plan with one of my students, as a requirement of her graduate program. As soon as I did that one with her, I realized I needed to be doing these with everyone in my lab, including grad students, postdocs, technicians, and undergrads. Here, I’ll describe what we include in our mentoring plans, talk about some of the ways they’ve been helpful, and will ask for ideas on some things I’d like to add or change.

The mentoring plans I’ve used with my lab* are split into several sections:

  1. A brief summary of what the mentor will provide to the student
  2. Goals
  3. Milestones
  4. Plan of attack
  5. Publication plans
  6. Funding
  7. Professional meetings
  8. Courses
  9. Plans for meeting
  10. Plans for communicating/turning documents around
  11. Added in 2018: A section on how data, code, and other documents are backed up.

Going into each of the sections more:
1. What the mentor provides: this section always feels the most awkward to me to come up with, and the least tailored to a particular student. Usually, it’s just a few bullets, with things like:

  • technical support for experiments and field work (e.g., access to supplies, protocols, training on techniques)
  • professional career support (e.g., developing a professional network)
  • support for non-technical aspects of making career progress (e.g., dealing with imposter syndrome)
  • weekly meetings to receive feedback

I think I need to do more thinking and reading to figure out how to make this section more useful to me and my lab folks. (Ideas are welcome!)

2. Goals: we split this into short-, medium-, and long-term goals. The exact time frames for each of those can vary (e.g., they tend to be a bit different for a postdoc than a beginning grad student), but 6 months-1 year for short-term, 1-2 years for medium-term, and 5-10 years for long-term are reasonable starting points.

The goals are big picture: for example, develop epidemiological modeling skills, identify parasite X, have Y publications, be in a PhD program, have a faculty position at a teaching-oriented institution. Having regular meetings (that is, the ones where we develop and update mentoring plans) where we discuss these things specifically is very useful. For example, it provides a chance to talk specifically about how many publications might typically result from a PhD dissertation, as well as goals for the timing of submitting those publications. In these conversations, I’ve found that lab members sometimes think they are “behind” (e.g., in terms of number of publications they’ve written), when I think they are doing just fine. I wouldn’t have known this was a concern or that it was something I should be addressing if not for the prompt provided by these mentoring plans. As another example of why it’s useful to have these conversations and revisit them regularly: it’s not uncommon for someone’s desired long-term career to change over the course of graduate school. In my experience, almost all incoming students say they want to have a position like mine (that is, a tenure-track faculty position at a research-intensive university). But, during their time in grad school, they often discover other interests, and knowing that their goals might be shifting is really helpful in terms of making sure that person is getting relevant experience. For example, a shift towards interest in a government research position has us currently working out internship options for one lab member, and possible interest in a teaching-oriented position has us working on more teaching opportunities for another lab member. Again, those conversations and efforts wouldn’t have started nearly as soon if not for the prompt provided by working on these mentoring plans.

3. Milestones: These are the more concrete things that will let someone know they are on track to achieve their goals. We also split these up into short-, medium-, and long-term, but often a medium- or long-term goal leads to short- or medium-term milestone. For example, if a medium-term goal is to defend with a thesis that includes at least one already-published chapter, then a short-term milestone might be having a draft manuscript ready for circulation to coauthors. Similarly, if a long-term goal is to get a PhD, a short-term milestone might be identifying potential PhD advisors and contacting them.

This section often ends up being pretty detailed, and is one of my favorites to work on. I like that it’s still fairly big picture, but also concrete enough to have a good sense of how to make progress towards big goals. So, it might be things like “work out transmission protocol for parasite X” or “do heritability assays” or “submit DDIG proposal” or “lead outreach activity”. We often put in somewhat more specific dates, which, among other things, helps to make sure that we aren’t being incredibly over-ambitious with these plans. Sometimes we conclude that things do seem overly ambitious, and then we reassess the importance of different goals and milestones to try to prioritize things.

4. Plan of attack: This is a much shorter section than the milestones section, but gives more of an idea of what a person’s day-to-day activities should be. So, it might be something like:

  • Winter 2017: teaching, running lab assays, analyzing field data, organizing outreach activity, reading literature as much as possible
  • Summer 2017: data analysis, making figures and outline, preparing ESA talk, counting preserved samples, reading literature as much as possible

5. Publication plans: as the name implies, this is where we discuss plans for publications. The degree of specificity will depend on the person’s career stage. For a new PhD student, it might be something like:

  • 3-4 high quality papers based on research you did
  • write up results as become available (that is, don’t wait until final year to write everything)

For a more senior PhD student, we might list out the planned projects/papers, such as:

  • review paper (currently in review at journal X)
  • field survey paired with bucket experiment (submit to journal Y this spring)
  • theory paper on coinfections
  • parasite evolution in the field

We also go into plans for authorship. For a grad student, for example, it might say: “X is first-author on all papers in his/her dissertation; Meg helps with design, analysis, and writing and is a coauthor; other coauthors as warranted”. Or, if it’s already clear that a project will be collaborative between multiple lab members, it might specify those folks and how we will determine authorship order (sometimes this is vague if it’s still early). This is another place where mentoring plans help have important conversations early, allowing everyone to be on the same page.

6. Funding: In this section, we cover funding for the person, their research, and travel.** For students, I split this out by semester. So, it might say:

Stipend and tuition:

  • Winter 2017: CAREER grant
  • Summer 2017: fellowship
  • Fall 2017: teaching assistantship
  • Winter 2018: teaching assistantship
  • {continued for every semester that we anticipate someone will be in the lab}

Research support:

  • 2016 field season: CAREER grant
  • 2017 field season: apply for Rackham (grad school) funds

Travel support: department, grad school support for one meeting per year

7. Professional meetings: Here, we talk about what meetings in the next 1-2 years seem like they would make the most sense for a given person. People in my lab routinely go to ESA, Evolution, ASLO, and EEID, but no one goes to all those in one year. So, it helps us to think about which meeting makes the most sense (in terms of what they want to talk about, who they want to meet, and, yes, meeting location). (Jeremy has an old post on how to decide whether to attend conference X.) This, combined with the previous section, also helps us avoid problems with funding related to fiscal years: we’re very fortunate that our students get travel support through the university, but if they go to ESA one year they can’t then receive travel funds to go to EEID or Evolution the next year (because the new fiscal year starts July 1st). I have a harder time keeping that fiscal year issue in my head than I should, and these plans help us avoid problems caused by that.

8. Courses: this is pretty straightforward: what courses should someone take to develop into the type of scientist they want to be? It’s also useful for reminding myself about an ethics course that postdocs supported on NSF funds need to take.

9. Plans for meeting: I have standing weekly meetings with all of my lab members other than undergrads, so this is usually straightforward with them; it provides an opportunity to make more specific plans with undergrads for how often we want to check in. In this section, we also discuss when we plan on when we’ll next revisit the mentoring plan – usually at the beginning of each semester (Fall, Winter***, and Summer). 

10. Plans for communicating/turning documents around: As the header indicates, this is where we lay out how to get in touch (e.g., call or text for urgent matters, email for routine stuff) and for how to get feedback/revisions done on documents. With most of my lab folks, we discuss at our weekly meeting when they should get a manuscript or proposal to me, and I aim to get things back to them within a week. For my lab, this section hasn’t been all that useful, but I could see how it could be in other situations.

Update July 2018: We’ve now added one additional section on data management and backup to the mentoring plans. In this, we make sure all lab notebooks and data sheets are digitally backed up, as well as make sure data files, manuscripts, etc. on their computer are backed up, ideally in a way that archives multiple versions of a single file.

Things I want to add to the mentoring plans

The main thing I am considering adding is a section (probably at the beginning) where we discuss specifically things that a student is doing well and areas for improvement. Some of this is because of an issue I mentioned briefly above: sometimes a lab member thinks they aren’t doing something well when I think they are. From talking with colleagues, I know that happens in other labs, too. Discussing areas for improvement would be hard for me – my personality is such that I tend to want to focus on the positive – but that is exactly why I think it would be useful. We all have areas that could use improvement, and going over them could be useful. It’s possible that having lab folks do the myIDP would help with this, but, then again, it might be too redundant. (Thoughts on this would be especially welcome!)

This section could also be a chance for lab members to give me feedback on things they think are working for them and things about the lab or my mentoring that could be changed. But even though I try hard to be a non-scary mentor, I’m not sure how awkward it would be for lab members to give me that feedback. I’d love to hear about whether other labs do this and, if so, how they do it and how it goes.

Other thoughts

As I said at the start, I have become a big fan of mentoring plans. I think they help us make sure that lab members are making progress towards their goals, they provide opportunities to revise goals and plans, and they’ve helped us avoid problems (e.g., realizing a student’s original support plan involved being supported on a grant the semester after it ended). I’ve done them at least once with my grad students, postdocs, technician, and some of my undergrads. Now that it’s a new semester, we’re starting the process of revising them again, and I am hoping to do a better job of getting them done with the lab undergrads. (Note: this provides a great chance to have the conversations I wrote about in this old post of mine on more intensive mentoring of undergrads.) I’m even planning on doing a self-mentoring plan, because I think it will help me make sure the things I’m doing on a day-to-day basis are better aligned with my short-, medium-, and long-term goals.****

And I’m not the only one in my lab who finds them useful! I know one lab member keeps a printout of their mentoring plan and refers to it regularly (even bringing it to our weekly meetings sometimes), while another recently contacted me to ask when we can update the plan since they thought that would be useful. Overall, I think these mentoring plans have been useful for everyone in the lab.

How long does it take to develop one of these? Each meeting takes about 1-1.5 hours for the first time. The revisions have taken a bit less time, but I can imagine that, in some cases, they could take just as long.

As I mentioned above, I’d love to hear thoughts from others who’ve done mentoring plans (as the mentor or, especially, as the mentee!) I think these plans are working well for my lab, but I’m sure they could be improved, and would love ideas for how to do that.


*The mentoring plans I’ve used with my lab members are based on ones that come out of the MORE workshops run by Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School. But I haven’t actually been to one of those workshops yet, unfortunately: I’ve yet to find a time that worked for me and my student. (This was complicated in the past year by having a baby.) But I had a meeting with a MORE Committee member, my EEB colleague Mark Hunter, to learn more about them, and worked with him on the first one I did (with a student we co-advise, Kristel Sanchez). I also looked over the different mentoring plans on the MORE website`.

**Before I did the first round of mentoring plans with everyone in the lab, I met with the financial folks in my department to make sure I knew exactly how long I could support different folks on different sources of funding. I had done that in the past, but it was good that the mentoring plans prompted me to revisit my accounts. Something that literally keeps me up nights sometimes is that I might have made a budgeting mistake and won’t be able to support someone as long as I thought. Going through all this with the accounting folks makes me feel better!

***Winter Semester at Michigan is what most colleges call the Spring Semester. This makes sense when it’s still snowing in April.

****I’m hoping to write a blog post that relates these plans to this recent article on why time management is ruining our lives. That piece certainly gave me plenty to think about.

27 thoughts on “Mentoring plans: a really useful tool for PIs and their lab members

  1. This is great! Thanks for sharing.

    “Discussing areas for improvement would be hard for me – my personality is such that I tend to want to focus on the positive – but that is exactly why I think it would be useful.”

    That would be hard for me, too. Fortunately, I think my students usually have a pretty good idea of what areas for improvement apply to them. So I think that if I were to do this, I would have them draft that section before meeting with me. If they had an area for improvement on there that I thought they were actually doing well with, I could tell them that. And otherwise we could talk about goals for each of those areas. There is the possibility that the student wouldn’t identify their own areas for improvement well, but you might help them to be successful by providing a big checklist of things to consider, like study organism ID, statistical analyses, reading critically, time management, etc.

    • I like the idea of a big checklist! It would be interesting to work as a lab on coming up with what should go on that checklist. I’m pretty sure just the process of coming up with the list would be really useful!

  2. Excellently post. A former lab I was in used a similar approach which included the PI’s goals and performance. We also integrated a ’round-table’ discussion associated with the process as a group every 3-4 months at a location out of the lab and university environment (usually combined with lunch at a restaurant), creating a retreat-like environment. This provided a relaxing and informal atmosphere for us to not only review our personal goals and performance, but also as a team. It was a great moral booster, too. One summer, it was conducted during a lab-group camping trip. 🙂

    • I keep thinking we should do a lab kayaking trip on the Huron River (which goes right next to campus), but haven’t actually gotten my act together to get it organized. Maybe this year will be the year!

  3. We did something similar at the department level to iron out what expectations are for both students and PIs. Basically it sets the groundwork for all students coming into any lab so they can be informed on all the topics you’ve mentioned rather than blind-sided or given unreasonable workloads. Students pushed inclusion of work-life balance. Faculty is supposed to vote on the final version at their next meeting.

  4. I think it’s great when everyone in the lab has similarly structured plan. It brings this synergy, learning from each other, and healthy competition. In my experience, it’s like having life couching for free 🙂

  5. I think mentoring plans are great — as long as both the mentor and the mentee actually care about them. NSF requires postdoc mentoring plans for proposals, for example, but it’s frequently the case that the mentor wrote the plan before hiring a postdoc on the associated grant. (e.g. my first postdoc). In this case, the mentee has no real buy-in. When I wrote a grant proposal to support myself as a postdoc, it also required a mentoring plan. So I wrote a plan — mostly cribbed from an existing one — and my mentor signed off on it. But there was never any discussion. These plans have no teeth. There is no consequence if they are completely ignored. But since they’re required, they get written. I guess my point is that mentoring plans CAN be great, but there’s an additional ingredient needed beyond just the document itself: buy-in.

    I always like it when my mentors ask for feedback on their mentoring. I always have feedback (both positive and negative), but I won’t share it unless it’s asked for. Maybe a key thing to do is to ask for both positive feedback and constructive criticism. I think giving negative feedback to a mentor is the most awkward.

    One final comment is that I would like to start seeing contingency plans in these sort of documents. What happens if the mentor gets hit by a bus — or develops a chronic illness or has a baby or commits a terrible act or is otherwise unavailable to act as a mentor? What happens if the field site that was going to be used for all the mentee’s research is no longer accessible? Obviously, it’s too much to consider every little hiccup that might occur. But I think it’s useful to think about having a Plan B and Plan C in case of catastrophic disruption to the dissertation program.

    • Yes, I have written postdoctoral mentoring plans for NSF proposals, and then worked on mentoring plans with postdocs supported on those funds. The latter one is done completely with the student (following the format I laid out in this post), and are much more specific than the ones I submit to NSF (necessarily, because, as you said, they were written before I’d even met the postdoc).

      I haven’t considered the contingency plan approach. The “has a baby” part seems different than the others in your list, because there’s enough advanced notice to work out a plan. But, yes, there are unfortunately times when an advisor dies suddenly or something else happens that leaves their lab unmentored. Those situations are always really difficult, for multiple reasons.

    • Re: contingency plans, I think you answered your own question: there are too many possible contingencies to make this feasible. Rather, the way you “plan” for them is to build resilience not tied to a specific contingency. For instance, you make sure you have a good, engaged committee with whom you have an annual progress meeting, because for many possible emergencies it’s someone on your committee who’s going to take over as your supervisor.

      • I have a blog post in the works about this, but I think it’s important to be excplicit about what happens when an advisor “disappears” for whatever reason. For many people, a single committee member might not be either (1) sufficient to fulfill the needs of the student; or (2) available to take on said student.

  6. Thanks for this post. I’d like to know how the mechanics of writing these plans goes. Who writes what parts, when? Do you do it all together, or do you each bring pieces and discuss those pieces as you put them together? I can imagine that a student might feel more comfortable providing feedback on their mentor if they didn’t have to verbalize it on the spot in front of them.

    • Great questions! With my lab, I meet with each lab member one-on-one. Prior to our first mentoring plan meeting, I send them the template so that they know what to expect and can think through their goals, what they would list as milestones, etc. (From now on, I can send them this post!) Then we meet in my office with us sitting side-by-side and me typing away on my laptop. We stop periodically to check in with the notes they brought in to make sure we’re covering the things they had in mind.

      I think you’re right that this format would make it more difficult to give critical feedback of my mentoring, and that another format could work better for that. So, it might be a better plan to decouple working on their mentoring plan from having them give me feedback.

  7. e have really formal “Individual Study Plans” that we need to complete every year as part of my PhD program. Every student needs to do it, have a meeting with their committee about it, and with their head of department. Then everyone signs off on them and they’re filled away until next year. It’s supposed to function as the yearly contract between the PI and the student. Just as you said, these plans are supposed to address short (this year) and long (the next four years) goals and milestones that the student has hit or will hit. It’s also intended to keep the student on track for the year, and keep the PI from moving the bar unreasonably. There’s definitely some unspoken agreement that goals and projects can be replaced, and that this is a flexible document so long as both the student and the PI are still agreeing. Honestly, I found that it was a bit of a hassle to do it (it was due for the entire department at the same time every year, so finding times to organize your committee meetings wasn’t easy), but in general, I thought that it was useful that it made me explicitly focus on what I had achieved in a year, and what I wanted to achieve in the next year. So.. in hindsight, it was useful, but whenever it was due I complained about having to do it…

    • “in hindsight, it was useful, but whenever it was due I complained about having to do it” This can apply to so many things in academia and life! 🙂

  8. This framework seems super helpful for those relationships where mentoring is really the focus… e.g. PI- Ph.D. student or Postdoc. I work with lots of undergrads and recent-grads who work as technicians in the lab. Some as work-study students during the colder season, some as grant-funded field techs during the summer, and a very few who are doing independent research in the lab. Most are basically doing menial tasks (pinning and labeling insect specimens, identifying plants and insect, entering paper datasheets into excel) for the bulk of their time, and only some have the schedule flexibility/ interest in engaging in the intellectual life of the lab via lab meetings, reading groups, etc. They are not necessarily ecology majors nor aiming for academic careers.

    My most important mentorship activities, with these students, is thus extracurricular. That is to say it is about forwarding job and internship opportunities to them, helping them draft cover letters and providing references for them for future jobs. It’s also about checking in on their academics, often followed by non-expert advice on how to do college (e.g. what order to take classes in, whether or not to drop a class, resources on campus for health, mental health, writing, tutoring, etc.). While some of this has concrete outcomes (jobs offered, GPAs improved, majors switched) I hope that more basically I show that I care about these students and their lives, I share some margin of social capital, I provide some personal value to these students beyond the $10/hour they often earn for their semi-interesting menial labor.

    When students are working with me for academic credit/ to do independent research, we’ve been intentional about setting goals and schedules and such. But for these students who are not committed to intellectual work in the lab, the mentorship activities mentioned above occur on a very ad-hoc basis.

    How does a mentorship plan get written for these students? How do you go from offering 3 hours/week of data entry for $10/hour to formalizing a mentor-mentee relationship, and when in the arc of a semester, say, does that occur? How much time should I, as a grad student, commit to developing mentorship plans for students who many commit to as little as 35 hours to the lab?

    Thanks for the provocative post!

    • These are great thoughts and questions! It’s something I’ve wondered about in the past: how intensively should I mentor undergrads? I think it makes sense to do mentoring plans with some undergrads but not necessarily with all. As you say, it might not make sense for someone who is working in the lab 3 hours/week washing dishes. So far, I’ve started with the students who seem most committed (e.g., considering doing an honors thesis). Right now, I don’t plan on doing them right away with every new student who joins the lab — some of them may benefit from it, but I’m also trying to balance all my other commitments with this.

      So, overall, I agree that the framework is really helpful for some lab members (including postdocs, grad students) and may not be as helpful for some others (someone who is just looking to make a little money washing dishes). Where the line is is surely a matter of opinion.

      I love all the examples you gave of ways you can help students, including those who are just working short term! I think that perhaps the most important thing you wrote is, “I hope that more basically I show that I care about these students and their lives”. That is so important — thank you for reminding me about how it’s possible to make a difference even with relatively non-intensive interactions. Related: I’ve thought about that same thing related to teaching — how to show the students in my giant lecture that I care about how they do (which I do!) I don’t think I do as well at that as I’d like.

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