Mentorship: How to Cultivate a Positive and Productive Mentor-Mentee Connection

It is valuable and rare to have someone care to invest their time and invest in you early in your career. Breanna Shi, a Ph.D. student in bioinformatics, was lucky to have had many inspiring mentors throughout her college career. Shi’s experience with mentors inspired her to pursue mentorship.  

“Being a mentor is my favorite part of my work,” said Shi. “I have learned so much about student psychology and my own psychology. As scientists, we can neglect the human experience it takes for us all to collaborate. I love thinking of new ways to improve the effectiveness of our communication so we all feel welcomed and valued in our scientific communities.”  

In 2022, Shi started a mentorship group, FishStalkers, which grew from five to 20 members in just one semester. Shi’s mentees have been offered competitive co-ops and internships, awarded prestigious fellowships, presented at research symposiums, and more.  

Shi provides her techniques for cultivating a positive and productive mentor-mentee connection. 

Instill confidence in your mentees. “Student researchers have a lot of helpful ideas,” said Shi. “They attend courses where they learn about the newest software and theories while you are held up in the lab. You need to try and access this information, but it’s not going to happen if you do not instill the confidence in them that their idea is worth your time, and that it’s okay if the idea doesn’t work out because the contribution is valuable.”  

  • Shi’s tips for instilling confidence include:  
    • Refer to mentees as “researcher” or “student researcher” to dissipate internal separations between undergraduates, master’s, and Ph.D. students working in the lab. 
    • Tell your mentees when they have taught you something new and when their work has gone above and beyond. 
    • Support mentees in pursuing their own goals to recognize their personhood. 

Lower the standards you set for yourself. “Most Ph.D. students are perfectionists, and they will put a lot of pressure on themselves in terms of responsibility to a mentee,” said Shi. “You don’t need to be perfect. In fact, if you are perfect around your mentees, you will probably just intimidate them.” 

According to Shi, this pressure can deter Ph.D. students from pursuing mentorship.  

“A lot of people will place barriers on themselves that they do not know enough, or they don’t have enough ‘good work’ for a mentee,” said Shi. “You will make mistakes as a mentor. You and your mentees as people will solve these miscommunications or issues. This is normal and healthy.”  

Humanize yourself. “Mentees often have an idealized perception of what a Ph.D. student is,” said Shi. “I will point out mistakes I have made in my work to students and encourage them to correct me if they have better information. I do not want to feel smart. I want to do good work and that requires criticism from other parties, including my mentees. Our goal is to increase the comfortability of the mentee while maintaining the professional boundary required of your role.”  

Facilitate situations where the mentee is empowered. “The important thing I focus on with my students is cross-training,” said Shi. “If one mentee has studied a software, they now become responsible for training other mentees and me. It helps to be intentional in teaching your mentees that knowledge can come from anyone. I think putting knowledge into a hierarchy is overblown and only serves to preserve the status of people at the top rather than allowing for new ideas.”  

Align mentor and mentee goals. “Goals should not conflict with one another, but this can happen if the mentor does not plan strategically,” said Shi. “The mentor needs to be transparent with what work the mentee needs to complete and the timeline. The mentor should inform the mentee of the amount of time the mentor has to assist the mentee and the appropriate method for contacting you when you need help. It is always best practice to be as specific with what you want rather than assume some ‘should know’ something.” 

Shi has created a mentorship document that outlines her expectations for all new student researchers.  

Communicate expectations. “We should communicate with each other the experience that we want from the relationship and work towards that goal,” said Shi. “You should align your students’ projects such that they are working towards something that advances your work. Sometimes, you will have motivated students who want to go off and do their own idea. That shows initiative in the student, but you should be direct with them that straying off into projects unrelated to your current research goals will mean that they will receive less oversight/feedback from you.” 

Provide positive feedback. “A lot of us analytical types may forget that we should point out tasks that are proceeding well along with the things that are going up in flames,” said Shi. “Recognizing quality mentee work is vital to them reproducing that quality of work again. They need to know when they have met your standards.” 

Provide critical feedback. “You will need to provide critical feedback to the mentee both on work and logistical miscommunications,” said Shi. “Do not shy away from this. If you are uncomfortable with discussing concerns on performance, this is normal, but by ignoring the issue you will deny the mentee from improving in this respect.” 

Shi’s procedure for handling performance issues involves gathering the facts, detangling your emotions, defining the solution, and sending them a message.  

For logistical, non-research issues, Shi recommends keeping records.  

“There is a lot of front-loaded work in creating documentation of expectations, but it really pays off in terms of not dealing with day-to-day logistical questions.” 

Understand the student researcher’s mindset. “Student researchers often feel insecure in navigating the lab equipment,” said Shi. “Sometimes, their perfectionism will cause them to ask you a lot of questions because they really want to impress you and do things correctly.”  

In these situations, Shi advises mentors to protect their own time while reassuring the mentee in their work. Let them know that you appreciate their effort to do things correctly, but part of research is independence, or let them know that you are unavailable to answer their question and provide a timeline for when they can expect to hear from you.  

Take the Tech to Teaching program and try your best! “I highly recommend this [Tech to Teaching] program to any Ph.D. student who has long-term goals of becoming a professor,” said Shi. “I want to emphasize something: you do not need formal training to be a mentor. If you are on the fence, try your best. You will learn the most about being a mentor by being a mentor. Listen to your mentee, balance your commitments, prioritize your time and goals, and you will be fine. There is the perception some people have that you need to mentor in a specific way. I do not agree with this mentality. I believe the scope of mentorship should be negotiated by the mentor and the mentee based on an alignment of goals.”  

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Sara FrancCommunications OfficerGraduate and Postdoctoral Education