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Home PI eAlert Back Issues No. 57: My Role as Mentor Isn't Going Well — Any Suggestions?

Dec 06

No. 57: My Role as Mentor Isn't Going Well — Any Suggestions?

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My Role as Mentor Isn't Going Well — Any Suggestions?

Reader Question: I find myself increasingly frustrated with the post-docs I'm mentoring. They come to me with problems they are capable of solving themselves or don't come to me for answers when they should. Time is critical, and I have very little of it available because of my schedule — especially none to waste on efforts that don't seem to get results. Can you offer any suggestions?

Expert Comments:

All mentoring is personalized — based on individual traits and needs. It's doubtful that all your post-docs respond to you the same way, but if they display some of the same type of “behavior,” — i.e., asking questions that they should be able to address on their own — it may relate to the type of training and exposure they received in their graduate work prior to the post-doc position. If that is the case, you might have to retrain them to a degree as to their thinking and approach to scientific questions.

To discover their strengths and weaknesses, pose some simple hypotheses and ask them to address these just as they would a thesis. Then discuss the insights and solutions they develop, and brainstorm with them if they get stuck.

For example, if they can't solve the problem you posed at all or offer the wrong solution, ask what they think got in the way. Ask them to share their thinking process, which of their steps worked, which didn’t, what could be improved and what they would do differently if faced with that problem again. Ask them to state specifically what they learned in this process.

If the exercise exposes deficiencies in their graduate training, you will need to “re-educate” them in those areas. This would be good mentoring on your part and will pay off later by helping make them better problem solvers.

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You mentioned that at times they don't come to you with questions when they should. That may be because they see you as "the boss" and want you to think they've got the answers. To counter that tendency, show that you're accessible and want them to bring you those problems they can't solve after giving it their best effort. When you have this kind of conversation with them, don't rush it. Give them your undivided attention, take notes on what they say and ask clarifying questions. This shows that you are "there" for them.

Treat your post-docs as team members. Have them shadow you in seeing how you solve problems. Let them see the whole process from grant writing to research method to publication. You should impart the idea that, "I’m glad you are a part of my team. You are valuable. You play an important role.” Over time, that will help build the kind of collaborative environment you are seeking.

Expert Comments by Dr. Thomas Landefeld, Ph.D,, professor of biology, pre-health advisor, California State University-Dominguez Hills. He will host a webinar, "How to Become a Better Mentor to Your Post-Docs," Friday, Dec. 10, at 1 p.m. EST. To join the webinar or order a CD, MP3, or pdf transcript, order today!

Comments (3)
written by David E. Harrison, December 06, 2010
Excellent advice. I would add a technique that often works: When they ask you what to do, get some background, and then, rather then telling them, ask them what they think is best. In such discussions of how best to handle scientific questions, they can learn from example how to learn. Also, discussing scientific questions is vital in the profession. And finally, sometimes they come up with ideas I would not have thought of!
written by R BANZETT, December 06, 2010
I am struck by the fact that this person has more than one postdoc, yet complains of having insufficient time to actually train them. Training a postdoc is a responsibility. Postdocs are trainees, not cheap labor. If you don't have time to train them, why do you have more than one?
Post-doctoral fellow
written by Ed Hubbard, December 06, 2010
Another thing to consider, if all of the post-docs are behaving in the same way is, what is the one constant in this situation? The mentor himself or herself? Perhaps there are other aspects of the mentor's behavior that encourage the post-docs to ask unnecessary questions or discourage them from asking questions.

From the framing of the question, it sounds as if the mentor is over-extended and frustrated, and this is certainly being communicated to the post-docs in a variety of ways, both verbal and non-verbal. Seeing this frustration may lead the post-docs to check in when it is not necessary, in the hopes of avoiding later frustrations, and then attempts to avoid unnecessary interactions when it might actually be necessary, because of the mentor's clear foul mood. The "expert" response here seems to assume that the mentor is blameless and the post-docs are the ones who need "re-training", which seems unlikely if multiple people are responding to the mentor in the same ways.

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