Columns Journey of a YI

Mentor-mentee relationships: creating a positive work atmosphere.

Geetanjali Sundaram

Geetanjali Sundaram in an Assistant Professor at the Department of Biochemistry, University of Calcutta. In this invited article, she writes about learning how to mentor graduate students as a young PI and the three-pronged approach that she follows to maintain a “happy lab”.

Geetanjali Sundaram
Geetanjali Sundaram  

As one transitions from being a graduate student to a post doc to an independent investigator, one does get opportunities to pick up some of the skills that are very essential to set up and establish a productive lab doing good work. The day you start the journey as an independent researcher, however, you realize that juggling all of these aspects simultaneously on a daily basis is an entirely different ball game and nothing could have prepared you for it.

There are also added administrative responsibilities that one may not apprehend. I soon realized that being the “Boss” basically meant that “from peon to PI”, every job was my job. Clearly the first couple of years were quite overwhelming and it took some time to find a stable footing. The constant deadlines associated with every aspect of the “peon to PI” role also never fell short of keeping me on my toes.

While meeting all the demands of being a PI, it is essential to not lose sight of an extremely important aspect of this job - mentor-mentee relationships. It is also the one aspect of your job that you are probably least prepared for. No amount of experience in training undergrads and juniors can make you apprehend the expectations that a graduate student has from their PI.

Becoming the custom-made and context-dependent support system that your graduate students need you to be and learning how to communicate effectively with them is not easy. It is a very demanding aspect of a PI’s job and when you are struggling with multiple important deadlines, finding the time and patience to provide the support and motivation to the mentee isn’t as easy as it sounds. In fact it won’t be an exaggeration to say that for every student who is awarded a PhD, the mentor should be awarded a degree in psychology as well.

I started my journey with a vision of building a “happy lab” with a group of people who were passionate about the science being done in the lab and for whom research was more “fun” rather than “work”. Building up this “people” part of the lab was much more challenging than I had expected and each day as a mentor has truly been an evolving experience. Over the years I have worked out a three-step approach to sustain my “happy lab” and here is what I learnt while developing this approach.

1. Making the right decisions about fellow recruitment: I believe that it’s crucial for every young PI to know exactly what they are looking for in a prospective graduate student. It’s equally important that every PI has the administrative freedom to make the recruitment choice simply based on intuition, if they so desire. When I joined as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Biochemistry, University of Calcutta, there wasn’t any structured procedure for recruiting research fellows at the department. This was a big advantage as it allowed me to create my own recruitment process.

The general norm of assessing a CV in isolation and judging the suitability of a prospective graduate student in a couple of meetings did not appeal to me. Instead, I asked the prospective student to volunteer for a month or two so that both of us really got to know each other before making things official. The main assessment was academic in nature, but it was important to judge the applicant’s temperament and tenacity. At the end of this period I asked them to make a presentation about a topic related to our research problem and end it with a section on the direction in which they think the work can go.

This part may seem too much to ask from a beginner and it really is tough for some of them. At the same time, I found that their ignorance about the difficulties of experimental research made them fearless about the ideas that they proposed. It gave me a very good understanding of the academic and analytical abilities of the student and helped me decide which of the projects in the lab would be better handled by this new student. Over time this system has worked quite well for me and 80% of the time both the fellow and myself have been right about our abilities to work with each other.

2. “It’s going to be all right”- Supporting and motivating the mentees: Most PIs are well aware of the fact that the journey towards a PhD degree can sometimes be equivalent to facing a wrecking ball on a regular basis. To either dodge these regular blows or to recover from them, every graduate student needs the support of the PI.

Some would need it almost everyday and some would need it on an annual basis. Some would demand this support and some would be hesitant about sounding needy and vulnerable. I realized that regular communication with the students was the key to identify their need for more attention at certain times. At the beginning of every month I put up a calendar on the lab notice board which specifies the schedule of meetings with them. These one-to-one meetings help them discuss their data in a less formal setting compared to the “data-club” and they feel free to discuss the issues they might be facing- failed experiments, access to infrastructure, personal issues, and sometimes the inability to deal with the demands of the job.

Some students would require a patient hearing and a pep talk while some would require a “not so polite” joke or remark to get them motivated and back on track. It’s crucial to identify who responds to what and use a “whatever works” approach to help them regain the required positivity. A good mentor would really care about providing this support.

It is equally important to know when to extend a helping hand and when to allow the student to be independent. To be their honest friend, you might also have to sometimes point out the bitter truth that they are in denial of. They are going to not like you for that and that’s a reality I learnt to accept. A student who held the PI’s hand all through the journey may not be ready to cope with the demands of a post-doctoral position.

The balance a PI strikes between the support and independence given to the graduate student is therefore very crucial for “raising” an independent and self –sufficient researcher. Striking this balance is often the most difficult part and the position of fulcrum on the weighing scale might require student specific adjustments.

3. Creating a productive work atmosphere: All work and no play make Jack and Jill very, very dull. Creativity and intelligence require a stress-free mind to thrive. I make sure that my graduate students get to have some fun in the lab as well. We often organize theme-based events in the lab. The themes are of course academic in nature and we just add a fun twist that not only helps us have a good time but also sometimes gives birth to very creative ideas about solving a particular academic problem.

Once, our theme included performing thought experiments where the experimental model would be a particular lab member and students were asked to present the expected outcomes of those experiments in the form of a research paper. One of the presentations described my presence in the lab as a “stress-signal” for changing the work pattern of a fellow lab mate who was described as a transcription factor in the paper. This paper went on to talk about experiments designed to test the effect of a combination of multiple stress signals (the other stress signals were related to infrastructural limitations of a state university lab) on this lab member.

I really liked the logic of one of the experiments that was suggested in this paper. Later, we actually did a similar experiment in the lab (of course, both the stress signals and the experimental model were changed!) On another occasion a student who always shied away from “writing” about her science, wrote wonderfully when the science part was masked in these themes and this made her realize that she was actually good at it.

We also have weekly tea parties where we customarily do not discuss science. Not all of these activities need to be pure fun though. Some can be purely academic. For example, I started a reading club in the lab where we choose papers for each other to read and there are monthly themes for the reading list. We then sit and discuss what we read. To rejuvenate the young minds (and “old” ones too) we make sure that these themes are a bit distant from what we work on.

I have found that flexible lab timings are also important for graduate students to strike a work-life balance and so I have never really judged them on the amount of time that they spend in the lab. I have found that for most dedicated researchers the flexibility to choose their work timings is rewarding.Of course there are work related deadlines that they must adhere to.

I also implemented an annual appraisal system for the students in my lab. At the end of every year I hand them a questionnaire that allows them to analyse and list their achievements, failures and targets and requires them to rate their development as a researcher on some specific aspects. They also get to mention which of their expectations I may have failed to fulfil. Some students are more candid in written communication and I have often discovered things about them through these questionnaires that I had otherwise failed to notice. I found that they really appreciate this opportunity for self-assessment.

These approaches worked for me and of course they are not part of a “formula” that will work for everyone. I feel that every young investigator should take this part of their job seriously and work out a method that works best for them.