Communication is at the core of any successful relationship. However, when you are not secure in your position, be it at a corporation, school, or other hierarchical organization, there are constraints on what you can and cannot say. How often do you keep your mouth shut because vocalizing a complaint or suggestion could possibly damage your standing or reputation? Hierarchies are the backbone of many careers and learning to navigate these political networks is often key to achieving success and advancing your career. Have you ever considered how these political relationships are, in fact, damaging the overall success of the organization and in certain cases, impeding progress of an entire field?
In science, we have these same communication dilemmas and our careers are ruled by hierarchies. Let’s take a typical lab hierarchy in order of least to most power: High School Student, Undergrad Student, Masters Student, PhD Student, Post-doc, Senior Scientist, Principle Investigator (PI), and Department Chair. All are at different levels of training and expertise and require different amounts of guidance. At the very top of this hierarchy—or we could possibly place it at the core of this system—is funding sources. Our livelihoods—all of us in the hierarchy from the high school student up to the PI—depend on the PI’s ability to procure funding through public and private donors.
This framework has become a crutch in the science community and remains one of the major reasons why there is a rift between researchers and the public. We are so concerned with offending people—bosses, funders, public—that we are too afraid to speak our minds in the correct forums (meaning, perhaps we feel comfortable speaking our mind around the water cooler, but in places where our voices should be heard, they are absent). ‘Balancing’ this out, of course, are those who are secure in their jobs and power and can say anything they want—and in any way that they want, which includes unprofessional behavior. While they are allowed to act however they want, we are left quietly fuming. If you are not allowed to communicate, these negative feelings will build up over time and propagate a negative cycle of dysfunctional communication. This is a shame because it oppresses the younger generations that come into a field with such excitement and passion and new ideas.
There are many negative impacts of this system, but the one most relevant to my career is its impact on the student-teacher relationship (or in our case, the student-advisor/PI relationship). While PIs are fighting for grants and focused on creating stories to get published—the students are often left to navigate these hierarchies with no guidance. This is not just because PI’s are busy with their own careers, but because there is some attitude that students should be independent and figure things out for themselves. Being a good mentor is not about coddling the student and telling them what they should be doing step by step. Mentoring is about taking an interest in the student’s goals and career development. We are here to learn how to be excellent scientists: which means we want to learn how to ask the right questions and how to effectively design experiments. I have had 8 years of technical experience; I know how to follow orders and protocols. What I have not been trained to do, and what I hope to learn here, is how to lead my future lab.
I’ve observed, and I can’t talk specifics because I am taking a risk in even just bringing up these issues in a public forum, that at many levels for Masters & PhD students, and also post-docs, there is a general lack of interest in teaching in the lab. PIs don’t have time for it and want to focus on grant and article writing (that is, after all, what is keeping the lab going, paying for all of our salaries, and bringing in the fame and glory). Students don’t have time for it. In fact, I’ve observed that students are often the most impatient with newer students…something which I find incredible since it wasn’t so long ago that we didn’t know where the pipets were kept or how to set up a Western Blot. New students should be encouraged to ask many questions—and ask them more than once. A person starting in a new lab (or any new job) is already going to feel like an idiot. If the person teaching them also has an impatient attitude (sighs, rolling of the eyes), the situation becomes worse. The new student doesn’t want ‘to bother’ anyone and ceases asking questions, ceases learning and growing. Related, I have observed that sometimes a (student) mentor will not answer a new student’s questions (and act impatient or say “Oh that’s not important to know”) because they don’t actually know the answer. Instead of admitting ignorance and looking it up, they save their reputation and make the new person feel stupid. Again, halting the progress of learning. It’s ok to admit that you don’t know something. Educate yourself!
I remember exactly how hard it is to navigate a new place and a new field; and in turn I always take care of new students and try to pass off my knowledge and, more importantly, my passion for science. I’ve been in charge of both high school and college students in the lab who, at first, didn’t even know how to set up a dilution. I understood that my attitude toward them was going to shape their attitudes about science and lab work. I wanted them to love it and to understand why we were doing things. Anyone can be given a recipe to follow; excellent scientists know why they are doing things and understand the background of their experiments. A new student can’t be expected to know all this and if we accept a student into our lab, we have an obligation to teach and mentor them.
Part of why I value mentoring is because I have been extraordinarily lucky to have excellent mentors: people who have taken the time out of their extremely busy schedules to get to know me and personally take an interest in my career and general well-being. We have a relationship, not just a business arrangement. We care about each other and show loyalty and respect. Like in any relationship, there are ups and downs. But in the end, we know that we support each other.
What incentive do PIs (and students) have to be good mentors? To me, it seems self-evident that the better the students are, the more successful the lab will be. Moreover, if students go on to lead excellent careers, this only reflects well on the PI. However, these are nebulous, long-term incentives. In reality, PIs don’t receive monetary bonuses or formal awards for being a great mentor; it is a thankless job that could be seen as taking time away from the more important cycle of grant and article writing.
An improved and positive communication cycle can start with us. Even as a student or post-doc, lead by setting excellent examples. Realize that we are only as strong as the individuals in our institute, so it should follow that by helping our teammates to achieve their goals, we will all benefit and receive more prestige in the end. Ask yourself, are you a good mentor? Do you teach those under you with patience and take time to teach them the background (Do you know yourself these things? Do you know why you add reagent A to reagent B?). We may not be able to change the system today, but we can initiate change by improving our own teamwork and communication.
Tell us about a great mentor you had? Do you have ideas for how we can improve this system? I would love to hear from you! -Nina