Great Expectations

Jun 07 2012 Published by under Grad School, Mentoring

A clear idea of what your mentor expects from you and what you expect from your mentor can make for a very symbiotic mentor-trainee relationship.  I've seen trainees get read the riot act for not living up to expectations that they didn't know about until later in the game.  For instance, a PI lit up a 2nd year postdoc for not working enough in the lab since they started.  Whether this is right or wrong is not germane, um should they be having this conversation nearly two years down the road.  After a few months, maybe this talk should have taken place.  And on the other foot, I've seen graduating PhD whine to their PI's that they didn't have enough experience in scientific writing and grantsmanship.  A little late for that one too.

A healthy relationship requires both the mentor and trainee to bring up their concerns in a timely fashion and not to mention that if you have the problem, the onus is on you to bring it up.  Its not going to bring itself up.  Some of my biggest growths as a scientist have been when the boss has called me into the office and told me that I'm not living up to my end of the bargain and that I need to correct whatever deficiency that I have.  Avoiding these conversations is like allowing a nasty wound to fester.

5 responses so far

  • Dr24Hours says:

    I had never been asked to write a paper, or a grant, as a PhD student. Nor was I given any theoretical instruction on such matters. When I went to work, I was totally green. I made mistakes. But learning by fire has always been good for me. In the event I ever have any students, I'll do it differently.

  • I totally agree that it helps when it's clear from the beginning what is expected. But it seems like some mentoring styles work better for some than for others. I've complained about my PI a couple of times; he's proud of his 'hands-off' mentoring style (his words), which is fine for the more independent people (like me), but not for some of the grad students who have been here 6+ years and are still far from finishing.
    Sometimes it takes a while before you find out that your PI's mentoring style doesn't really fit with the mentee's expectations and then what do you do? A post-doc friend of mine found out after 2 years in the lab that her PI wanted to write her paper and didn't even want her to make a first draft. She (obviously) decided to stay in the lab because she had put 2 years of work in, but it's not an ideal situation.

  • physioprof says:

    Sometimes it takes a while before you find out that your PI's mentoring style doesn't really fit with the mentee's expectations and then what do you do?

    I make it *extremely* clear to people seeking to join my lab what my mentoring style is and what the general intellectual style of the lab is. I do this both by explaining these things myself and--much more importantly--having them spend substantial amounts of time with current lab members (in my absence), who explain these things to them. And I tell them very clearly that they should not join my lab if the way things are is not what they are looking for.

    Obviously, both my mentoring approach and people's expectations can vary within some dynamic range, but, e.g., someone who needs daily or weekly guidance about what experiments to do and what their controls should be for every experiment is not going to be happy in my lab. As far as writing goes, in my opinion, it is unacceptable for PIs to not have trainees write their own papers.

  • Dr 27 says:

    Agreed. That's one of the main reasons I felt I failed as a postdoc. I wasn't clear on my boss's expectations. He did tell me he was hands off ... I just had no idea how hands off he was. My PhD PI said the same thing, yet she'd be happy to be called in and assist when things were going crazy or nowhere. That didn't happen with my PD mentor. It was crazy.

    Indeed, I tell people that email me about advice for grad school or postdoc to talk openly and honestly about expectations, from them and from their boss. Talk about what it is you want to do and compare to what the boss expects. Talk about assistance when things go wrong (is the boss super hands off, or does he/she like to get down and dirty and figure what's wrong?). What's the policy on time off, both from the school's end and the boss's end (some bosses are more, or less generous than what the school policy may specify). Talk about whether you want to write, or not, and what experience besides pipetting and setting up gels you want to get while under their direction.

  • scicurious says:

    I agree that making expectations clear is very important. I think the rub comes wen you have grad students who simply don't KNOW what they need to succeed, what kind of mentor works best for them, and what experiences they need. I had research experience in undergrad, but it wasn't varied. I didn't really know what I needed or how I worked best, because I'd only ever had the one small experience to draw from. The wisdom of knowing what you need, and knowing what questions to ask, may be the sticking point for the mentee.

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