Wednesday, 29 November 2017 10:38

Tips for Mentoring During Your Research Training

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Published in Careers

During your research training, you will mentor a junior trainee or intern, like an undergraduate, post-baccalaureate fellow, or master’s student. As a mentor, will come great responsibility as you will have a profound influence on the future scientific trajectory of that person. Mentoring a rotation student will equip you with necessary management and communication skills to use in your own research program. These skills are also transferable to any future professional context that requires you to delegate tasks, manage or collaborate on projects, or supervise staff.

Here are four helpful tips for mentoring junior trainees:

Define Project Goals

Design a thoughtfully planned project for your trainee, and discuss this project with your own Principal Investigator (PI) or mentor. Verify that the project scope is appropriate for your trainee’s skills and experiences.  Discuss the parameters for authorship in your lab - will your trainee’s name be on your paper for contributing to your project?

When your trainee arrives, be prepared to discuss their long-term goals, as well as the particular skills and aptitudes that they hope to gain from this experience. With this information, you can help your trainee develop an individual development plan (IDP): set weekly and monthly goals, create an action plan to accomplish those goals, establish milestones for success, and record accomplishments. For trainees that are getting research experience for graduate school, successful completion of a technical protocol is often not enough. Instead, it will be important to ensure that they are learning and using the scientific method to fully understand the context of their experiments and the impact of their work. If your trainee has to write a personal statement for a graduate school application, it may be helpful to review how they explained their experiences with you and to provide them with constructive feedback.  

Discuss Expectations for Record Keeping and Protocols

Many experienced researchers have their own way of learning and grasping new experimental processes and technical protocols and maintaining accurate records. However, students that are new to laboratory research may be fully unaware of how they best learn and implement new protocols. Also, junior trainees may not fully understand the principles for recording and managing their data and experimental records. Therefore, when teaching and training junior trainees, solicit feedback on their understanding of each step in a process, and ensure that they are taking notes as you are explaining protocols and demonstrating techniques. As an assignment for each experiment, have them develop their own written protocol that details the experimental procedures in their own words to reinforce understanding. Furthermore, you should detail all requirements for recording data thoroughly and ethically. You may find it helpful and engaging to discuss or role play a research integrity case to teach your trainee the importance of responsible conduct of research.

Schedule Project Status Reporting

Set a routine and dedicated time to meet with your trainee to discuss the status of their project and troubleshoot any obstacles or issues. Allow your trainee to discuss their results and share any difficulties in reproducibility. Get their feedback on how they interpret their data and let them justify their conclusions. These meetings provide a great opportunity for junior trainees to enrich their scientific fluency, and for you to help guide that process. This is also a great time to regularly provide feedback on their IDP. Are they learning new skills and tracking accomplishments? Are they setting new goals?  

Help Your Trainee With Their Next Step

After having regular status meetings with your trainee, you will have a thorough understanding of how well they are acquiring knowledge, skills, and abilities that are pertinent to scientific research. You will also be able to speak about the types of obstacles that your trainee had to overcome during their experience with you. Different labs will have different procedures for how recommendation letters and reference checks are handled. Be sure to confirm these policies with your PI, and ensure that you have provided substantial input on any accolades that need to be provided on behalf of your trainee. I find it helpful to draft a recommendation letter for my trainee, and then have my PI to review, edit, and co-sign it.

Structured mentoring can increase productivity for your project and provide a wealth of clarity and exposure for your trainee. With this in mind, it is imperative to remain patient and maintain constructive and professional interactions during the mentoring experience. If you need help communicating with your trainee or resolving conflicts, do not hesitate to ask others for advice. Consult with your PI and your training/career office to get more tips on how to maximize your mentoring relationship with your trainee.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 29 November 2017 11:03
Caleb McKinney

Caleb McKinney is Assistant Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Training and Development for Biomedical Graduate Education at Georgetown University Medical Center. He graduated from New York University with a Ph.D. in microbiology. During his postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health, he volunteered on several training committees and managed a cadre of professional development programs for research trainees. At Georgetown, Dr. McKinney develops and oversees biomedical career development programs and provides individualized career-related assistance to students and postdocs seeking a wide range of careers.  He hopes to help them develop positive outlooks and professional strategies that align with their individual experiences, passions and goals. He can be reached via LinkedIn.