I believe mentoring relationships are most successful when there are clear end goals and intermediate progress points. To frame my mentoring approach, I find it helpful to think of mentoring relationships as having three phases (beginning, middle, and beyond), each with distinct demands on the mentor and mentee.
The start. I believe every mentoring relationship should begin by establishing goals and time commitments in a written mentor/mentee compact. I like to develop these in real-time and in-person at one of our very first meetings in order to make sure we proceed with common expectations and explore how we can incorporate the mentee’s personal and professional goals into the research project. At this stage, I believe it is my responsibility to provide written guidelines about lab notebooks and any procedures and - even more importantly - walk through procedures with mentees the first time they attempt them. I think this is incredibly important for allowing mentees to gain the mastery experience (doing the tasks themselves), the vicarious experience (stories I convey about my experiences doing the tasks), and real-time feedback to build their confidence in their ability to do the research tasks at hand. Throughout this phase, I try to emphasize the importance of their work to the overall research project and any context that is helpful in making connections to the big picture. My main goals for the beginning phase of a mentoring relationship are that the mentee feels confident in their ability to do the work on their own and feels valued as a team member.
The middle. As research progresses, I believe it is important to check in with one another regularly with face-to-face meetings. This allows us to catch any issues before they snowball too large and provides me time to brainstorm alternate research trajectories as needed. I make a point at these meetings to again affirm the importance of the mentee’s work to the larger project and to show appreciation for careful work and dedication the mentee displays. I believe it is equally important to use this time to get to know the mentee as a person - where they come from, what is important to them, how they spend their time outside of the lab or office, how their professional interests are evolving. Understanding mentees in this way is important to ensuring they feel valued. It also provides me with more context; if a mentee has trouble focusing on work in the lab or office, I am more likely to know if something external is affecting them. My main goals for this phase of a mentoring relationship are that the mentee continues to feel that they are getting what they want out of the research experience in terms of new skill development and support from me and that the research tasks are getting done at an acceptable pace.
Transitioning to the future. I encourage all my mentees to finish each research experience with some type of final product, whether that is a poster, presentation, or report. Having flexibility in the type of product allows it to be easily tailored to the mentee’s goals. Interested in policy? Perhaps a written report is best. Interested in research? A presentation at a symposium might be a helpful experience. Irrespective of the form of the final product, I believe the reflective experience is incredibly valuable to the learning processes, and provides the mentees with something they can point to as an example of their capabilities. My goal for this phase of a mentoring relationship is that the mentee leaves the project with some summary of their work which they can be proud of and can show to potential future mentors and employers.
Mentoring is an important way in which we as researchers give back to the scientific community, but I find mentoring has other benefits to my research and me as well. I clarify my own thinking by explaining research questions and describing experimental methods to mentees, sometimes making connections that do not occur to me until I hear my thinking out loud. The desire to set a good example for my mentees pushes me to make sure I am following best practices for reproducible science in my own research practices. I also enjoy the diversity of perspectives on my research questions.