Update (4.25.17): I have added some suggestions from Twitter. Please keep making suggestions and I will add those to the list. Thank you!
This post was inspired by a conversation I had with Nick Wan recently where I was talking about the amount of work my P.I. was putting into helping me and how I felt bad about how much time it was likely taking him. Nick mentioned that instead of feeling bad, I should focus on what it is that my P.I. was doing that I found to be so positive so that I could do the same with those I may mentor in the future.
As a medical student and a graduate student, there is no doubt that much of my future will involve teaching and mentoring others, so I think it is a great idea to try to understand the traits that I have found useful and positive from those mentoring me so that I can try to emulate them. I am aware there are plenty of guides to mentoring that often include important aspects of being a mentor such as being supportive, available, and encouraging, but I wanted to elucidate some of the more concrete behaviors that I have noticed left me feeling as though someone was a good mentor or teacher.
This blog will be a list of some of the most important things I have noticed; please feel free to add additional thoughts in the comments!
- Responding to emails
Seems simple, but it is hard for many (myself included). Many emails I send my P.I. have requests or something to edit, but the fact that he responds acknowledging that I sent it has been really helpful. The fast response does not need to be an answer to the question or a fast turn-around of the editing, it can be as simple as letting me know that he is too busy to look at it right now. This is something I can do, just responding to let people know they have been heard and you will get back to them makes a huge difference.
- Explaining errors
Many people respond to a students response by mocking or just by fixing the mistake. Those mentors/teachers I have learned from the best have explained the mistake, what was wrong with it, and then allowed me to try and fix it myself based on the explanation. This helps both of us know that I have understood the mistake and know how not to make it in the future.
- Checking in
Asking how things are going, if there are any problems or questions. I have had this experience in both a medical and research setting and it has been really helpful. Many students are hesitant to interrupt their P.I. (or resident/attending if in a hospital) and ask for clarification. By asking the student you acknowledge that it is okay to have questions and be unsure, and you are inviting them to ask for clarification.
- Not putting people down
That means not putting down or mocking the person you are currently with, but also everyone else you work with. There have been times I was uncomfortable asking a person for clarification and was not sure why because they had also been nice to me, but then I realized that it was because I had seen how they talked about other students behind their backs. This creates a negative atmosphere, and makes students assume that you are saying similar things about them when they are not there.
- Remembering what it was like for you
Last month I showed up to a clinic and was shadowing a third year medical student. After introductions she said that she remembered what it was like being a first year who was thrown into clinic with no idea of what to do so she would not force me to do anything I wasn’t comfortable with, and that I could just shadow her to learn the ropes. Hearing that was like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders, she understood. Frequently, those who teach us forget what it was like to be at the beginning. The amount of times I have heard “this is easy” before introducing a concept that takes people years to understand illustrates this well. Just remember how little you knew at the beginning and be aware of this when teaching; let students know that it is okay not to know.
There are many other less tangible behaviors that I have found helpful, and as I progress in school and research I plan to come back and add to this list when I think of new concrete ideas. Most of these behaviors are simple, and ones that are useful in general but as I begin to have students who I may be guiding I want to have concrete actions that I can do and be aware of so that I can be the type of mentor that I have found so helpful.
Additions to the list from Twitter:
1. Address conflict openly and be upfront – Kalina Michalska
2. Encourage networking and talking to other professors and students – Addictive Brain
3. Encourage hobbies outside of the lab and take time for family – KRWedemeyer-Strombel
4. Talk openly about challenges, previous mistakes and how they were addressed – Paige Morgan
5. Be encouraging and supportive to those who want to pursue careers outside of academia – Joe Fruscione
N.B. I wanted to give credit to those who made the suggestions, but if you do not want your name/twitter account linked here please let me know and I will remove it.