Picking a Good Mentor

Mentoring a Demography trainee
Mentoring a Demography trainee (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the most important aspects of graduate school is choosing a good mentor. Who you choose can dramatically impact your experience in both graduate school and your ensuing hunt for employment or postdoctoral positions. How do students new to a department find those faculty members who will be good mentors? What makes a good mentor in the first place? These are important questions to have in mind before choosing laboratories for research rotations and your eventual thesis.

For many of you in PhD programs, it will be necessary to do rotations in the laboratories of faculty members who will be your potential mentors. While it is important to work in your research area of interest, it is equally if not more important to find a lab in which you work well with your mentor and their unique personality. Those of us in PhD programs will be entering into multi-year research arrangements with these individuals and it will be necessary to maintain a healthy working relationship. Research projects can change and become ours over the course of multiple years, but people will remain who they are, and working with the right people is paramount.

So how do you know if you will work well with a mentor? These questions are often outside of the more straightforward initial questions regarding research aims, funding status, and potential lab space. If you can, start by asking other members of the lab what the work culture is like. Is this person very hands-on and regularly in the lab or do they manage the lab from a distance? This is important if you prefer more involvement and direction or if you thrive under conditions of independence. Other questions to keep in mind are how many students has this person had and where are they at in their careers. Younger faculty members can be very motivated and enthusiastic but not highly experienced in mentoring students. Conversely, faculty close to retirement have the benefit of much mentoring experience but may be less involved in the day-to-day research taking place in the lab. Some may even have hired lab managers and never personally set foot in the space due to time constraints and administrative pressures. What’s important is finding the right balance in a mentor so that you work well together over the course of your graduate experience. Finding the right mentor now can help push you to your full potential as a researcher and prepare you for the challenges that you will face after graduate school.

It’s also important to remember that while you may have one official mentor through your graduate program there is no limit to who you can approach for guidance and advice. Don’t limit yourself to those “above” you in your program. Who do you admire? Which faculty members make you feel comfortable during conversations? What do you admire about these people? Don’t be afraid to sit down with these people and learn from the wealth of experience that they have gained through their hard work. At different times there will be various people whose perspectives can help you through this process, so don’t hesitate to build relationships with more than just your designated mentor in the graduate program.

Graduate school is notoriously difficult at points and in different ways for each individual. I have personally learned that there will be moments in graduate school where you will become disoriented and need guidance from those around you. This guidance won’t simply come to you; at this level we have to seek out the mentorship that we need to survive and thrive during the graduate experience.

Do you have any tips for choosing good mentors? Share them in the comments below.

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