Mentor-mentee relationships begin when an experienced and an inexperienced researcher agree to work together. Each brings something to the table under such an arrangement. The experienced researcher has knowledge and skills that the inexperienced researcher needs to learn. She or he may also provide support for the mentee’s research and education. Inexperienced researchers, whether graduate student, postdoctoral student (postdoc), research staff, or junior researcher, provide labor and fresh ideas. Under a productive relationship, the two work together to advance knowledge and put ideas to work. When the relationship breaks down, it is often because one of the parties is not getting from the relationship what she or he expected.
One way to avoid problems is to establish basic understandings about important issues early in the relationship. Mentees need to know:
- how much time they will be expected to spend on their mentor’s research;
- the criteria that will be used for judging performance and form the basis of letters of recommendation;
- how responsibilities are shared or divided in the research setting;
- standard operating procedures, such as the way data are recorded and interpreted; and, most importantly,
- how credit is assigned, that is, how authorship and ownership are established.
Clarifying these issues early in a mentor-mentee relationship can prevent problems from arising later.
The need for early understanding is not one sided. Mentors need to know that a mentee will:
- do assigned work in a conscientious way,
- respect the authority of others working in the research setting,
- follow research regulations and research protocols, and
- live by agreements established for authorship and ownership.
Different mentors establish different research environments. Some laboratories are highly competitive; others emphasize cooperation. Some mentors are intimately involved in all aspects of the projects they supervise; others delegate authority. Similarly, different researchers like to work in different environments. Some enjoy independence; others like to have close working relationships with colleagues. Some thrive in competitive environments; others prefer cooperative working relationships. Although there is no single formula for a “good” research environment, there are some fundamentals that mentors and mentees should keep in mind.
Equal treatment. Research ability is not tied to race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. These factors have no bearing on one’s success as a researcher. Therefore, research environments should not put someone at a disadvantage based on who they are. If competition is encouraged in a way that puts any distinguishable group at a significant disadvantage, it is not acceptable. All students should be subject to the same level of supervision and scrutiny. Aside from legal obligations to avoid discrimination in the workplace, researchers have a professional obligation to work to assure equal access to their profession, particularly if their work is publicly supported.
Professional practice. Researchers should maintain research environments that respect accepted practices for the responsible conduct of research. Mentees learn by example as well as formal training. They assume, not unreasonably, that the practices they observe are appropriate practices. Mentors therefore have an obligation to maintain research environments that set appropriate examples. They should not themselves make unreasonable authorship demands, fail to honor agreements made with trainees, inappropriately cut corners in research, or engage in other practices that run counter to accepted practices for the responsible conduct of research.
Training in the responsible conduct of research. Beginning in 1989 and in line with recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine (IOM, 1989), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) required recipients of National Research Service Institutional Training Program awards (training grants) to offer instruction in the responsible conduct of research (RCR). The National Science Foundation (NSF) has a similar requirement for recipients of its Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) Program awards. Later reports, notably by the 1995 Commission on Research Integrity, called for broadening this requirement to all PHS-funded research, but such a requirement has not been implemented. Nonetheless, there is widespread agreement that RCR training should be integral to the research environment, with heavy emphasis given to the role the mentor plays in providing this training.
Supervision and Review
When mentors accept mentees, they assume responsibility for assuring that the persons under their supervision are appropriately and properly trained. This responsibility is particularly important in research since for the most part there are no other checks on the qualifications of new researchers. Researchers do not take licensing exams. They are judged primarily by the quality of their research, which should be best known to the person directly supervising their work, that is, to their mentor.
Proper supervision of a mentee takes time. In one way or another a mentor needs to:
- assure proper instruction in research methods,
- foster the intellectual development of the trainee,
- impart an understanding of responsible research practices, and
- routinely check to make sure the mentee develops into a responsible researcher.
Proper supervision and review play an important role in quality control. Mentees can make mistakes. Some have deliberately falsified or fabricated data. Mentors should review work done under their supervision carefully enough to assure that it is well done and accurate. This can be accomplished by:
- reviewing laboratory notebooks and other compilations of data;
- reading manuscripts prepared by mentees carefully to assure that they are accurate, well-reasoned, and give proper credit to others;
- meeting with mentees on a regular basis to keep in touch with the work they are doing; and
- encouraging mentees to present and discuss data at laboratory meetings.
Some of this responsibility can be delegated to others, but as with all other matters regarding training, the mentor should assume ultimate responsibility.
The ultimate goal of research training is to produce independent researchers who can establish their own research programs, take on mentees, and help research-dependent disciplines grow. This means that the mentor’s final responsibility to mentees is to help them get established as independent researchers.
History has repeatedly shown that experienced researchers often do not give over control to the next generation easily. They have a difficult time seeing ideas they planted grow in another person or having someone they trained head out in new directions. And yet in many fields, it is well documented that researchers are most productive early in their careers, when they are first making their way as independent researchers.
The problem of mentee versus independent researcher is most apparent in postdoctoral training. Postdocs, as they are commonly known, are usually well prepared to undertake independent work, and yet they are still working under someone else’s supervision. The fact that they are neither official students nor official faculty gives them few rights and protections. The fact that they are usually supported by someone else’s funding leaves them open to exploitation. To protect against such exploitation, a new organization, the National Postdoctoral Association, has been established “to address national issues relevant to postdocs and focus public debate on how to improve the lives of postdocs at all levels.”
Researchers who supervise postdocs should carefully work out their relationship with this unique and important group of researchers in training. Some supervision is still necessary, but not as much as for graduate students. Postdocs may have their own funding and assume all the duties of a principal investigator, even if for administrative purposes their funding comes through their mentor. They may deserve first authorship on all of their papers, even though the mentor was involved in the research. Most importantly, they should be encouraged to develop the independence and record needed to get a regular research appointment, thereby paying back society’s investment in years of research training and the student’s investment in her or his own career.
Institute of Medicine. The Responsible Conduct of Research in the Health Sciences, Washington, DC: National Academies of Science, 1989. (Link)
National Institutes of Health. Alcohol, Drug, and Mental Health Administration. “Requirement for Programs on the Responsible Conduct of Research in National Research Service Award Institutional Training Programs,” NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts 18 (1989): 1.
Commission on Research Integrity. Integrity and Misconduct in Research: Report of the Commission on Research Integrity, Washington, DC: Health and Human Services, 1995.
Gottesman, MM. A Guide to Training and Mentoring in the Intramural Research Program at NIH, Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health, 1999. (Link)
National Science Foundation. Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) Program, Washington, DC: NSF, 2002. (PDF)
General Information Web Sites
Association for Women in Science and Engineering. Home Page, 2003. (Link)
MentorNet. The E-Mentoring Network for Women in Engineering and Science, 2003. (Link)
National Postdoctoral Association. Home Page, 2003. (Link)
The Graduate School wishes to thank the Office of Research Integrity for the use of the mentoring material above. The source is the text book, ORI Introduction to the Responsible Conduct of Research, by Nicholas H. Steneck, Ph.D., HTML Version, September, 2006, updated from Revised Printed Edition, June, 2004.