6 Things Your Research Mentor Wants You to Know (But Probably Won’t Think to Tell You)


6 Things Your Research Mentor Wants You to Know (But Probably Won’t Think to Tell You)

—from the Lab Manager's bench

The mysterious ways of mentors

Most mentors do a solid job informing a new undergrad of the basic requirements of a research position. Typically, they cover the expected time commitment, lab safety procedures, lab dress code, and guidelines for writing a pre-proposal or end-of-semester report. When it comes to working at the bench, most mentors remember to share technical tricks with a new researcher, and offer guidance on getting organized, programing equipment, and finding research supplies.

But sometimes, because we have been in science for a long time or because we are distracted by our own research goals, we forget what it was like to be a new undergrad adjusting to a professional lab environment.

We don’t remember the nervousness or anxiety that often accompany the unknown. We don’t remember what it was like to adjust from being a student in an instructional lab where procedures (almost) always worked the first time and when something didn't the teaching assistants were immediately available to advise or solve the issue in some way so we could move forward. And we don’t remember how mysterious our research mentor first seemed, or the uncertainly we felt when they appeared to randomly change our experimental plans from time to time. Consequently, it might not occur to us to address these things that to us as experienced mentors seem obvious.

To help ease your transition into your new research group, here are six things that your research mentor probably wants you to know, even if they don't think to tell you.

  1. If I don’t hang out and chat at the lab it doesn’t mean that I don’t like you. It probably means that I’m overextended, or don’t have much spare time each day. I might be in the lab more hours per day than you are in an entire week, and I still don’t have enough time to accomplish my goals. Alternatively, your lab schedule might overlap with my busiest time of the day, or I might need to leave lab at a specific time each day leaving me no extra time to socialize. Therefore, I might focus on conversations that teach you how to interpret results or gain a new research skill, because I want our limited time together to make the greatest impact on your research experience. That might mean sticking to conversations about research and science.
  2. Just as starting a new research position is tiring for you, mentoring someone new is challenging for me too. And sometimes I need a break just like you do. On occasion, in the lab I might ask you to observe a technique I'm doing, instruct you start reading the scientific literature related to your research, or not be immediately responsive to your email or text. It doesn’t mean I don’t like you (review #1) but I might need to temporarily restructure my time, or need a break from research-like things. Although it might be difficult to believe, I do have a life outside the lab and might have caregiving responsibilities, manage a disability, or are struggling to maintain a work-life balance under difficult circumstances. This means that I might need to occasionally pause a part of your project that requires my focus for a short period to make room for my other priorities.
  3. If I say, “thank you” more often than “good job” it’s because I appreciate your efforts, but there isn’t much praise given in a professional research lab for meeting basic expectations. You’ll realize quickly that it wouldn’t mean much if I praised you for learning how to use the autoclave or prepare a 5M sodium chloride solution. I’ll probably save the praise for things such as when you excel at a difficult technique, come up with a good troubleshooting idea, ask a question that connects your classroom knowledge with your research project, or stay late to help someone else finish an experiment. I want you to feel proud of your accomplishments, and I know that false praise won’t help you do that. (But I still appreciate what you do!)
  4. When I don’t immediately give you the answer to your question, and instead coach you through the answer, it’s because I’m investing in you. I'm not being dismissive of your time or frustration. Trust me--even if I have mentored 50 other undergrads, it takes more effort on my part to ask you to explain, analyze, or reason through your own question than to simply give you the answer. But, I know that coaching is critical to both your personal and professional development, and for you to make a deeper connection with your research project. So, I hope you remember that I’m not being a jerk and it’s not a “power thing” when I ask you to try to answer your own question— it’s a mentoring thing.
  5. I hope that you’ll be inspired by your research project, but if you’re uninterested, or would rather be anywhere else than the lab, you’re not going to get much out of your research experience. If you don’t show up regularly, or purposely don't follow instructions in the lab because you don't feel like it, I won’t go out of my way to inform the professor you’re underperforming, but I’ll be honest when they ask for my opinion. So if you’re not excited about the project or what I have to teach you, it would be better for you make a professional exit, and find a research project that inspires you. I’ll understand because I know that “my” science isn’t right for everyone. However, If you show me that you value the time you spend in the lab, I’ll be happy to teach you everything you need to succeed, and to earn an epic letter of recommendation.
  6. Sometimes I brag about how awesome you are to my colleagues. As you're working hard and investing in your research experience, I’ll be excited to share how much fun it is to mentor a student who is genuinely enthusiastic about science. And I’ll probably make my spouse listen a few times as well (sometimes until I’m asked to move on to another subject). It’s impossible not to be proud after you present your first poster or give a polished talk at a group meeting. Being there when your CV and self-confidence grow is one of the best parts of being a mentor. Although bragging about it is pretty good, too.

A version of this article appeared in ASBMB Today.