Are you a mentor or a supervisor?

Photo by Zhu Liang on Unsplash

Mentorship to me is like dance choreography – the dance has to be in sync with the music for it to shine.

I started teaching students, directly or indirectly, since the beginning of my masters degree. I have taught large cohorts of students, as well as well as one-on-one training in research-related placements.

However, each time I was assigned a new student, it is a whole new experience for me. Having to be in the shoes of a student before, and currently still am, I strive to help my student make the best out of their learning experiences from me. I cherish each opportunity that was given to me to nurture and grow younger scientist-to-be that comes along the way, regardless of race, culture, nationality, and age.

Recently, I have just finished my term on mentoring an undergraduate placement student in the lab. Having to be working mostly with bioinformatics since the beginning of my graduate school days, it is certainly nerve wrecking to be teaching a student both wet lab and bioinformatics skill set at the same time. When I was being assigned this task by my supervisor, the first question I asked myself was “Am I the best person to be mentoring the student?”

As I have grown to be more aware of how impactful good mentoring is to help students strive and grow, both in their career and personality. The obvious place which I turned to help is definitely Academic Twitter.

I have cherry-picked some great advise which fellow ‘Twitterians’ have put it out there to assist and guide young supervisors like me.

Here are my takeaways on mentoring students as a postgraduate student or early career researchers. It might not be a one-size-fits-all approach, but I hope it could serve as a reference or prompt readers to give mentoring a careful thought before the mentorship begin.

On Mentoring style: which is the best?

Over the years as the graduate student I have experimented with different mentoring styles. In the early days of my postgraduate studies, I started off with the “friendly and jovial” approach. I try to make myself approachable to students by being more of like a friend-type character. Although this approach of teaching gets students to be more open about the questions and struggles they face, but also it also makes unexpected circumstances difficult to control or savage at times. There are people who take these friendliness for granted, and took my words less seriously when I needed them to. Such situations do frustrate me a lot at times, especially when the students move on from a mentee to a colleague role in the lab, the mutual respect becomes non-existent and the snowball effect of project debris that was left was extremely stressful for those who have to work in the team. In a positive light, this experience showed me that a right mentorship is far more important than just being approachable, but making sure the mentee learns the proper set of values and skills before they set on their career trajectory.

I have also tried the “stern and logical” approach, where I kept the interactions with my students to “business only” approach. Such approach does make my work life much easier, as I am always busy with tasks at hand. Nevertheless, I find this approach makes supervising students feel more like a chore, and the experience is less rewarding for both myself and the student. The student later move on having no emotional impact on the learning experience. I feel like in this supervision task, I merely just completed a job that is just assigned to me, but with no further impact on the student’s life, and mine.

This year, I am being assigned a student again. I asked myself if I were to be a student, what would I expect? What would make me look forward to coming into work every day? Why would I want to try again if I know there is a high chance that I would fail? What would I want to learn from the person whom will be my mentor?

I took a different approach compared to my previous supervision. I took a “Respective and supportive” approach. In the initial contact of this mentorship, I clearly communicated my role as a mentor throughout his lab placement duration, and what is expected of me. I also requested him to write his expectations of this placement, his course timetable, and his commitments (like part-time job). This is because time is valuable, and I respect his time as well as my own. Besides, I have also mentioned clearly that he can ask me about any questions he has about the project, even if he is concerned that it will not be a short answer that I can reply in a given time. At the end of the placement, we both have a chat about his experience in the lab. He does mention that he finds me strict at times, but reasonable as i would explain to him the reason behind them. Overall, he enjoys his time in the lab. As a mentor, I feel rewarded as he reignited my passion for my work, introduced a new perspective to my research, and showed me how far I have come.

In my opinion, being a good mentor is the same as being a leader, as shown in the following infographics.

Importance of Open communication in mentorship

Up till this point of my writing, it is clear (hopefully) that I am a person that prefers mentoring over supervision. Supervision is mostly one sided and less engaging, whereas mentoring takes much more effort and investment of both mentor and mentee. Mentorship to me is like dance choreography – the dance has to be in sync with the music for it to shine.

I have learnt about the importance of open communication from my past and current mentors. Each of my mentor has a different style in managing the team. For the mentors that I really admire and has moulded me into who I am today, often they share the same trait: encouraging, supportive, communicative, and humble. Mentors whom I found most comfortable to raise my thoughts and concerns, even if it is different to what they have in mind, often are the ones that I find that I am able to benefit the most in terms of my learning experience. This is because open communication also indicates a high level of trust that no hard feelings will arise with whatever issue that is raised, with a mutual understanding of the point of the conversation is to help achieve the team’s goal and the best of personal growth.

Providing support, through the best and the worst

I have realised that to be a supportive mentor is not easy at all! In order to be supportive, one needs to be empathetic, observant, and understanding. Recalling my past placement and research experiences prior to graduate school, the impression of mentors that stuck with me till this moment, are the ones who stuck with me through thick and thin: the ones who screamed in joy when I won my first ever awards, when I published my first paper; also the same team of mentors who supported me when I was extremely stress and worried, failed in my experiments, who look after my mental health during graduate school as much as my progress in research. I was inspired by them, as their sincerity and engagement makes me want to continue improve myself and not give up easily. With these positive experience in mind, I aspire to be the same to pay it forward.

There is lots more to being a better mentor, and it is always better to mentor than to supervise. I must stress that there is still a certain level of coaching involved in mentoring, the difference is mentoring has an extra layer of inspiration to it, while plain coaching is just supervision to get the job done. At the end of the day, we are humans after all. Nothing is much more powerful than emotions, and positive mentoring creates impactful emotional imprints that changes lives, no matter how small or how big the change is. It is a ripple effect that goes a long way.

http://www.muto.org.uk - Coach or Mentor?
source: http://www.muto.org.uk/page_1294236102515.html

“To go further, you have to bring the team with you.” That is what my PhD mentor told me when we reviewed my role as a mentor this time round.

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