Principal Investigators, Improve Your Graduate Mentoring

Or I won’t send my students to you, writes Emily Heffernan, voicing her concern about how many leave STEM (and other) fields due to bad mentoring experiences.

July 12, 2022
Illustration of a figure with a megaphone who is yelling at three smaller figures, who are covering their ears.
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My institution, New College of Florida, is the nation’s top public college for producing undergraduates who go on to earn Ph.D.s. More than 80 percent move on to graduate school within six years of graduation, and I have the distinct pleasure of supporting and mentoring such honors undergraduate students at an institution that, at its core, supports diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. We are afforded the privilege of working closely with students to support their intellectual development, academic risk taking and personal growth. As a STEM professor, I am proud to support my undergraduates who elect to pursue careers in the sciences—especially first-generation students, nonbinary students, students of color and female students, who have been historically excluded from the upper levels of STEM disciplines.

Given the institution’s and my own dedication of time, effort and resources, I am concerned about the number of students leaving STEM (and other) disciplines during or directly after graduate school due to terrible graduate mentoring experiences. We have spent a collective two decades working with these students only to have our efforts undone in a few years of graduate school. In addition to the sexual harassment cases of John Comaroff, David Sabatini, Mark Siddall and multiple accusations at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, I want to emphasize that we have a broader crisis of supporting the students we need to become our future leaders.

Having met with many of our former students, I have come to recognize a series of patterns that drive students out of academe and the sciences. The damaging behaviors stem directly from a principal investigator’s abuse of power (or failure to acknowledge the power differential) and lack of respect for graduate students. The number of instances where students’ identities have been trivialized in person by their graduate mentor to then be trotted out for “broader impacts for grant purposes” is appalling. Consider the student who was told, “You are wasting your Saturday with that BLM rally; you should be working instead” and then was told weeks later that “you can do that urban outreach thing because that’ll help our grant, but don’t waste too much time on it.” Why would a bright mind choose to continue to work 60-plus hours a week for minimal pay in this environment? This is all especially disheartening considering these students have already overcome multiple barriers to get to graduate school.

At best, bad graduate mentoring maintains the status quo in upper levels of academe and research fields broadly. At worst, it damages lives.

Too many students were probably mentored by faculty members who engaged in such behaviors. To change those damaging patterns, I’ve put together for faculty members a simple how-to guide—a brief list of ways to offer positive and supportive graduate student mentoring.

  • Respect boundaries. Do not text your students at 2 a.m. Ever. In fact, don’t do it anytime in the evening, if possible. Be considerate of their time away from the lab and other work, and recognize that this time is theirs and essential to restore and maintain a healthy life balance. If you have an important thought to share, write an email and schedule it to send at 8 the next morning. Demonstrate healthy work-life balance for your students. They will follow suit and be less likely to experience burnout.
  • Consider student safety at all times. New graduate students should never be working alone in the field or lab. Remember that you are supporting the next generation of smart people, and smart people who are put in unsafe situations will leave.
  • Listen. Many principal investigators are great talkers but need to practice good listening. I have heard from many students of color that their PI brushes off concerns about racial and social justice issues, indicating to those students that such issues do not matter. At the same time, PIs who practice performative wokeness, for their part, fail to honestly support their students’ needs. Do not explain your own views or identity while your students are trying to share their struggles. Just listen and practice empathy.
  • Treat your postdocs, lab technicians and staff members with respect—and as professionals. Avoid an absentminded-professor persona or a busy, self-important one. Worse than caricatures, such academic personas effectively alienate not only your students but also your staff by reinforcing detrimental power hierarchies. Keep in mind that many lab staff members are informal mentors to your students; supervise them all with dignity. When students see key postdoc mentors treated poorly or leaving academe (or perhaps just leaving your lab), they will take it to heart. It may indicate to students that they, too, will be undervalued and that this will be their fate, as well—so they should get out now.
  • Value individual goals and identities. Your students did not choose to work in your lab to be molded in your image. Work to support their individual goals and paths. Additionally, be mindful of comparing current students to each other or past students. Are your comments meant to motivate? Comparisons rarely have this effect. Provide feedback and support that is specific to each individual grad student.
  • Value service to the community. Many students have a desire to connect their teaching or research to their community through service work, such as school outreach programs and the like. They often include this type of work in grant proposals and receive funds to do so. Be supportive. Don’t diminish or devalue those projects for not producing publications of a certain type. Doing so is hypocritical and undermines the broader impact of such efforts. Respect and support outreach work that encourages each student’s professional and personal development.
  • Beware of job-scope creep. Graduate students are highly competent individuals and capable of managing duties outside their primary research roles. But it is your responsibility to calibrate their duties with their job description and to keep their workload from getting out of hand. It is not their responsibility to say no—in fact, many students will feel uncomfortable saying no to you.
  • Credit student work fairly. It is your responsibility to mentor your students in specific work related to their degree. Accordingly, students should be given appropriate credit and authorship for research work. Set clear guidelines for authorship attributions and discuss them as the work progresses. Be aware of the power you hold as PI and that it is your responsibility to provide credit where it is due, not the student’s responsibility to ask.
  • Do not comment on a student’s appearance. Unless it directly involves their safety or a representation of your lab, keep your opinion on their appearance to yourself. If you must make a comment on attire, provide it to all members of your team at the same time in an effort to support professionalism broadly.

Harmful or unsupportive mentoring relationships are both personal and systemic. Principal investigators have a shared responsibility to train and mentor the next generation of scientists, and most major research universities have the resources to support them in this role.

If you don’t think this list applies to you, provide a way for your students and direct reports to give you anonymous, honest feedback so you can be certain that it doesn’t. If your lab is too small for anonymous reporting, work with others in your department to develop such a feedback mechanism. It will help you cultivate a culture of supportive mentoring that may increase enrollment and retention in your department.

There are many wonderful, positive and supportive graduate mentors out there who have changed people’s lives for the better. Strive to be one of them. Our students deserve it.

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Emily Heffernan is dean of studies at New College of Florida, the state’s public honors college. She is also associate professor of biology and environmental studies. In 2019, she won the Outstanding Undergraduate Science Teaching Award at the professorial level from the National Science Teachers Association. Heffernan (formerly Saarinen) conducts research in ecology, genetics, entomology and the intersection of art and science research practices.

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