Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Mentoring in the Lab

One place where a lot of mentoring occurs is in the laboratory/research group. This is a classic place where the master (you) are mentoring and directly educating the apprentice (student) in a one-on-one setting. There are a lot of different ways to mentor students. Some people are very hands-off. Others are very hands-on. Also, each student is going to need different mentoring on different aspects at different times in their tenure in the group. It is very much a fluid interaction that is easy to mess up, even if your students consider you to be a great mentor.

There are a variety of items students need mentoring and training about and many different mechanisms to achieve this. I am going to report what I find works best for me, but different people are… different. Please post other ideas of successful mentoring strategies as comments, or as guest posts!

Meetings. There are a variety of ways to meet with students. Many people like to have one-on-one meetings with each student every week. These can take a lot of time, especially if you have a lot of students. Further, it may not be necessary for most students who are continuing fine on their projects. I recommend streamlining meetings by having a group meeting where every student gives one slide each week. During this time, it often become obvious who needs more attention, and I set an individual meeting during the lab meeting. The slide has a specific structure, again to facilitate the process. Every student must have a list of what they did the past week with a image, movie, of plot to represent their work. They must list their goals for the following week. If someone doesn’t have a slide, they must do an interpretive dance of their work, which is funny and encourages them having a slide the following week.

Writing. Science writing is hard. And most of us learned it the hard way – through terrible cycles of trial and error trying to write our first manuscripts. In order to help that issue, I have adapted a strategy from another SeniorWomanOfScience to have informal writing assignments from my students. The original idea was to have monthly assignments, but that was too often, and I couldn’t keep up with the reading! Instead, I have semester/summer reports. Each person in the lab has to write one. It must include:

  1. A list of goals that the student had for the previous semester/summer.
  2. The experiments the student performed to reach those goals with data results (images of raw data, examples of analysis methods, and plots). Publication-worthy level is encouraged.
  3. Any problems that the student encountered in attaining those goals.
  4. A list of unmet goals.
  5. A list of goals for the next semester/summer.
  6. Your view of your progress, what you have done well, and what you need to improve on.
  7. Any new protocols developed over the last semester, typed, and as separate word documents.

The students turn them in, and I make comments in writing and return it to the students. If needed, we have a one-on-one meeting to discuss the report writing and figures, progress, changes in the goals for the next term. At least once, after seeing all the results together in one report, we submitted a paper. These regular writing assignments help students get over their fear of putting words to paper, facilitating the manuscript writing process.

Speaking. There is a lot of public speaking in science. Ironically, many students in science are shy. Thus, they need to practice and not just in front of you and the group. In addition to our weekly lab group meetings, we have a a multi-lab group meeting where students present their work. It is a reasonable safe environment, and I expect students to have seminar-level talks that explain the background, aims, raw data, analysis, and results of their research.

Research Training. Training students in good research techniques is the obvious mentoring avenue of academic science, yet it is surprisingly still neglected. Maybe people believe that students will learn things through osmosis or from their peers. Also, teaching students one-at-a-time is time consuming. In my lab, I developed a week-long lecture and lab curriculum that I term a “Bootcamp” to train new students. I offer it 1-3 times per year to teach basics of laboratory research specific to my lab. I start with some really basic ideas and orientation such as how to keep a laboratory notebook and how to do the types of calculations we use most in the lab. The students work is small teams and do hands-on laboratory work. This way, students learn all together, can teach each other through peer-learning, and create a sense of camaraderie early in the lab. Students who go through bootcamp start their projects seamlessly and feel comfortable in the lab. Students that do not often have a hard time incorporating into the group, and have a higher likelihood of leaving the lab without significant progress being made.

Research Group Culture. Another part of research is knowing some of the social aspects of the lab. Many new (undergraduate or high school) students coming into the lab don’t know what a graduate student or a postdoc are or what they do. Many graduate students and even postdocs don’t understand how what the PI does all day, since she is not in the lab. Such gaps in knowledge can get people into trouble and cause bad feelings between lab-mates. The easiest way to combat this is to just communicate. Twice per year, I give a lab meeting where only I speak called the “State of the Lab.” In it, I define the roles and responsibilities of people in the lab. I also take everyone through the funding situation and how it works and each science project from 10,000 feet, how it started, its current status, and where it is going led by which researchers of the lab group.

Comments on: "Mentoring in the Lab" (5)

  1. […] I had some posts on organizing your research group (here and here) and mentoring students (here and here). I have mentioned that you can train students in a bootcamp setting.  Here, I will […]

  2. […] group to the ways of the lab. I have described the State of the Lab address before here, here, and here. In that address, I have a slide on how important it is to rest in science and to take breaks. It […]

  3. […] I devised to train them including the bootcamp, state of the lab (orientation),  lab rules, and writing/presentations. But, I am not sure I have mentioned why is enjoy working with undergrads so much. So, here is a […]

  4. […] have a public face and profile to maintain. In my “state of the lab” address (post, post, post), I call myself the CEO of the lab. Much like a pop star, you have a public face that you […]

  5. […] So, I’m on sabbatical. OK, you know. And, I’ve been having meetings with students over SkyFaceGoogleHangoutTimepe. And, I have to say that, while it is frustrating to be 3000 miles away from the lab which has definitely led to some problems, in general, my individual meetings with students have gotten… better. We have every-other-weekly individual one-on-one meetings, and the students are coming more prepared and more focused than they ever did when I was there in person (exceptions abound, of course). I can speculate all day about the reasons this may be happening, but the fact that it is happening has exposed some best-practices for having meetings with your advisor. I will describe those best practices here, but before I do, I would like to point to a couple posts of related interest including: Effective Meetings, StateOfLab, mentoring. […]

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