Learn How to Be a Good Mentor in the Lab

June 14, 2017

Dr. Stephen Goff, recipient of the 2017 ASM D.C. White Research and Mentoring Award, advised grad students and lab technicians to “go wherever smart people are doing great science.” During a recent symposium at ASM Microbe 2017, he shared some advice for principal investigators too, on being a good mentor and advisor.

First, let students choose their own research projects. PIs should provide a menu of potential projects that includes the history and pros and cons of each. Remember that students can bring something new to the lab as well, and they may have great ideas. If you really need a student to work on a certain project (say, because a grant renewal is due or a paper needs to be revised), emphasize that this work is usually short term and that the student can return to their own work afterwards. (And if that’s not the case, be up front about it.)

Next, demonstrate your ability to keep up with all the work going on in your lab. Visit the lab routinely (ideally daily), and check in individually with students at least once per week. You need to be up to date enough to know quickly when someone is stuck.

You should also share your enthusiasm for science. Keep your students excited by being excited yourself when an interesting result comes in. Encourage your students when they get discouraged, and help them learn to read their data—what is it telling (and not telling) them? Help them master the tasks they’ll need to be proficient in and the concepts they’ll need to be familiar with for their future work.

When it’s time for your students’ work to be published, have them write a first draft of the paper. Then go back and forth as many times as you need to, trying to see any holes in the methods, analysis, or writing before reviewers do.

Finally, Dr. Goff said, treat your students well and be kind to them. You can expect dedication and excellent work from your trainees while still being compassionate and supportive. “Labs of happy people beget more of the same,” he said. And if students don’t feel supported in your lab, they’ll advise new students not to come. Your students are your legacy, and you should support them once they move on as well. Help them find collaborators, or their next position.

Share any tips you may have on being a good mentor in the lab in the comments below.

Author: Bethany Adamec

Bethany Adamec
Bethany Adamec is a Science Education Specialist at ASM, where she communicates about ASM’s work in student and faculty professional development, supports the ASM Education Board, and works with colleagues to promote evidence-based education reform.