I believe oceans of ink were spent, ever since pens were a thing, writing on the mentor-student relationship, its do's and don'ts, and the consequences of deviations from proper practice. And rightly so, as the balancing act required for a proper, effective teaching action is entirely non trivial. The fact that our didactical systems and academia are in constant evolution, that rules and courses formats change over time, and that as humans we tend to forget what has been learnt in the past (on good practice, I mean), require us to keep thinking about the topic, and continue to keep the discussion alive.
So this post is a very small contribution in that direction, from my personal perspective. I have been a student and a teacher and mentor over the past forty years. Over two dozen undergraduates have obtained their thesis diploma in Physics under my advisorship, plus a dozen PhD students got their PhD with me as a tutor or co-tutor. This may not look like a lot, but for personnel in a research institute who have no mandatory didactical charges, is well above average, at least in Italy.
As some added qualifications to the above, I will mention that in the past six years I have been involved, as a scientific coordinator, principal investigator, and outreach coordinator, in two "European Training Networks" (AMVA4NewPhysics
) funded by the European Commission under the Horizon2020 "Marie Curie" program. During these years I have mentored a few PhD students, and steered students as well as colleagues away from trouble in their own student-mentor interactions. If you were never involved in such practices you wouldn't in fact believe how fragile a fruitful relationship of that kind can be, and how much care a good mentor must put in ensuring the highest benefit for the trainee.
Most importantly, in my mentoring activities I have made all the mistakes, and I observed many more from colleagues; this made me an expert, and allowed me to improve (at least so I hope) and put to focus some of the things we should enforce and avoid. So here I am talking from the narrow perspective of a physicist, who is concerned with training young students for their undergraduate or graduate studies.
What I think I will do below is to offer a distilled set of simple "rules of thumb", which could be organized in a Pentalogue Of Good Mentor-Student Practice. It will mostly apply to the kind of activities I am involved in (research in fundamental physics), but some of the suggestions may be valid more broadly, I hope. In writing them, I am fully aware that similar lists of advices must exist around. I specifically avoided to look for examples and inspiration, though, as I think I have my own ideas of what a pentalogue of this kind should contain and I don't wish to contaminate my pure thought with external inputs! So here we go.
- o - o - o -
1) As a mentor, constantly remind yourself of the feelings you had when you were a student interacting with your own mentor. As trivial as this rule may sound, it is a crucial one for good mentoring practice. It forces you to come to terms with how your actions, your suggestions, your behaviour are perceived by your student. In your days you maybe have breezed through undergraduate school and did your PhD independently and confidently, but you still most likely experienced moments of misunderstanding, mistook decisions of your advisor for acts of hostility, or suffered from lack of recognition from him or her. Recall them!, and try to ensure you make all attempts at reducing the impact of similar actions you today take. 2) Show high appreciation for the achievements of your student. Of course this is a bit related to #1, but it stands on its own too. Here the keywords are two: show, and high. How much we are naturally inclined to display our satisfaction and appreciation for some work, a small result, a minuscule achievement by our trainee varies enormously depending on our personality. It is also cultural - in the US I observe that advisors routinely show more enthusiasm than what's reasonable - when they thing something is good,they will say it's great, and when they think something is mediocre they'll say it's very good. But they are not lying - just stretching it a bit... In fact, I learned commandment two above by observing how this is a very sound approach to mentoring, with which you take care to give confidence to your student. They will need it for the next project! 3) Always think what is best for your trainee, not what is best for your stupid research project. Sorry for the loaded word in the above rule, but I think it is a good idea to shake you a bit off your rathole. Your research is important, sure, but it will go on and thrive even if that deadline is missed, or if that conference talk is given by a not-yet-fully-competent student rather than by a higher ranked researcher. And if the student needs a break, this comes first and overrides all milestones. An excellent mentor always considers what the future career moves of his or her students will be, and plans ahead to make sure they come there well equipped, with that additional preprint published in time before their next application, or their research output properly discussed at a conference you might otherwise not be considering. I learned this good practice through the European Commission's training projects, which force you to write and keep updated a "career development plan" where the student's goals and the means of achieving them are spelt out in full. More paperwork - that sucks, and yet it is a very useful piece of paper, in this case. Connected to the above is the fact that in many instances you usually take decisions on the course of your research project, you set or modify milestones, choose to publish or not, on this journal or that other one, etcetera. When making any of these choices you should consider, in addition to their benefits to your research plan, the effect they have on your students, and the benefits or negative impact on your trainees. 4) If you get in a conflict with your trainee, take two steps back, breathe, and eat humble pie. Why did you get in a conflict with your student in the first place? That was really not a smart move. You are important to them, and it makes no sense to ruin your role as a trusted guiding character in their life. You certainly saw that coming, but you decided (out of stubbornness or egotism) to not steer away or find a compromise. Now it's the time to eat some humble pie, and show that you are capable of reconsidering. You won't deplete your self-esteem capital much, you had too much of it to begin with. Make the move and apologize, find a solution, show that you care about their opinions or choices and accept them even if deep below you disagree, in this particular instance. It will save the day. Be aware that a tutor-student relationship is a fragile thing. If the seed of mistrust is sown, it can't easily be removed. 5) Teach them by example. If you are a good mentor, you know this in your guts. How you work, the way you approach and solve a problem, how you think - all these things provide invaluable input to your trainees, and you don't even need to stop and think how to explain them. So just be a good researcher, and make sure they see how you operate. Be transparent, let them observe you at work. Give them as many opportunities as you can to see the way you handle problems in your daily life. One day, they will be mentors, too, so if you are good at it chances are they will propagate this good practice. As a student, eons ago, I had a great mentor, Dario Bisello. He did not teach me much in fact - he was the leader of our research team but I rather worked with other team members; he specialized in detector development while I mostly worked in data analysis. And yet he was able to give me invaluable example in one specific thing: caring for the future prospects and career opportunities of his students. Much of what I am writing here, reinterpreted and digested, has some connection to things I learned from him.
- o - o - o -
So here it is, my pentalogue for a good mentor. I don't mean to make much of it - I will just post it here, and maybe some of you readers will be able to put some of the advices to good use. As Oscar Wilde once said, "I always pass on good advice, it is the only thing to do with it - it is never any good to oneself".Post scriptum
- I almost forgot to quote here the reason why I decided to write this post in the first place. What got me thinking at the fact that I could, in fact, have something to share on this topic was a little fulsome, and yet very welcome, card I got from a student I advised a couple of years ago... Posting it here is maybe a bit shameful, but hey, this is my blog after all!