Dynamic Ecology

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:

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:

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:

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

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:

Research support:

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.