Choosing a Mentor or Research Group
By Marianne Evola, Ph.D.
Central to career development is proactive and informed selection of research relationships. A research career can be critically inspired but also detrimentally affected by the actions of subordinates, peers, superiors and even distant scientific “idols”. Therefore, from the earliest stages of their career, researchers should critically assess potential mentors, research groups, colleagues and students for potential positive and negative career impact so that they can actively select those that will enhance their career. This seems like an obvious and intuitive assertion. After all, aren’t we taught as children to be careful choosing our friends? However, there are challenges to actively selecting research mentors or collaborators, especially for students and junior researchers.
Students at different ranks face different challenges when selecting research relationships. For undergraduates and some grad students, their first and biggest challenge is critically assessing whether a research group will be a good work environment during the overwhelming experience of their first interview. Most of my experiences with first time interviewees have been with undergraduate students. With few exceptions, during that first interview, the student was not actively assessing me as a mentor or our research group as a good work environment, but rather, the student was hoping to be selected. The students’ limited selection process transpired prior to the interview when they looked up our general research focus and found that it interested them. However, once face-to-face, the student was too overwhelmed to critically assess our group. From my experience, that is the normal script for an undergraduate’s first research interview. However, I have also observed that undergrads with research experience do much better. They have learned the big secret, that intelligent, interested and reliable undergraduate assistants are highly valuable assets to a research group.
For undergraduate students, the first interview may not be as critical as it is for graduate students and postdocs. Undergrads are trying on research for the first time, so choosing to leave a research group and try something else at a later date is often not markedly detrimental or costly to their career or education. However, graduate students and postdocs need to make use of the valuable face time during an interview because they are often applying for a research program/position from across the country or the world. Graduate students tend to be somewhat better informed during the interview process, they generally have research experience and have a good idea of their interests. They also may have done more research on the public face of a research group. However, they have no knowledge about the dynamics of a research group or the personality of a potential mentor. Following the continuum, postdocs may have a little more information about a research environment based on information gained from professional associations and meetings. They have a clear understanding of their research interests and likely know they type of environment in which they thrive. However, similar to undergrads, graduate students and postdocs face selection pressure as well, but also face pressure to find a program that will fund their expensive graduate education and/or provide an income. Furthermore, at this point in their career, postdocs and sometimes graduate students also face growing financial pressure from new families and/or student loans. If lucky, the graduate program will require students to do research rotations before committing to a research group, so that grad students can assess the fit of the research and mentor. Regardless, in most cases, graduate students and postdocs must choose critical research relationships with limited information. As such, they need to make use of the valuable face time during interviews so that they can make the best decision with limited information.
Below are some questions, suggestions and considerations when selecting a research environment. Individual suggestions in the below text may apply to trainees of different ranks. Take what is useful and leave the rest.
Questions to ask of yourself prior to interviewing:
- What kind of research do I want to do? Be honest with yourself! Sometimes students like the idea of being a scientist but do not like conducting research. One of the most talented undergrads that we ever trained in our lab was following a plan that she made in grade school to become a medical doctor. After her first semester of med school, she decided to leave because she realized that she loved the idea of being a doctor but hated science. After critically assessing her interests, she entered a new graduate program and is now happy and productive in a more applicable career.
- What kind of environment do I want to work in: cooperative or competitive, low or high pressure, structured or unstructured? In what type of environment do my abilities excel?
- What type of research experience do I want to acquire? Are there particular experimental techniques that I want to learn? Am I looking for an environment that will teach me how to write effectively? Am I looking for marketable skills or training on how to become an independent researcher? If I am looking for marketable skills, will I be able to market the skills that I acquire in this research environment?
- How much time can I devote to research? Am I willing to work evenings or weekends? Be realistic in your assessment of time and be honest with yourself and your mentor at the start rather than being perceived as unreliable later on. I have had undergrads that spent most of their free time between classes in the lab, treating it as their on campus home or community while others were in the lab two hours per week. I valued the contribution of all and designed tasks that fit with their level of commitment. They key is to be honest, and if a mentor does not find a small time commitment useful, then look for a research group that can utilize the limited time you have available.
Questions to ask prior to and during your interview:
- With whom will I be meeting during my interview? Are there other undergraduate or graduate students in the group? If so, can I meet with them? Try and meet with multiple members of a research group, including other students before making your selection. A variety of perspectives can give you a more accurate assessment of a group’s dynamics. Ask students what they like and dislike about their research position. However, if the students give you a list of dislikes, assess whether these are things that would bother you if you were in their position. Keep in mind that most labs have happy and inspired new students as well as jaded and grumpy senior grad students. Make your own decision.
- Who will be training or supervising me? How much supervision will I have? Students are often disappointed with the limited amount of face time they get with faculty while conducting research. They also often underestimate the importance peer assessment. Remember, a senior undergraduate is a proven entity in a research group, their experience is valuable and their assessment of your performance will be critically considered. However, also consider that they are a student so may have limited experience supervising others. If you have concerns about their instruction or supervision, be sure to address these with more senior research personnel. As a first year grad student, I was instructed by two more experienced undergrad assistants. Their technical knowledge was critical to my initial training. However, in retrospect, their teaching ability was inhibited by their misconception that, as a graduate student, I knew more than I actually did.
- Does the lab work evenings or weekends? Some labs work seven days a week, some work business hours. These differences are often rooted in the type of research that is being conducted. Research with animals often requires seven day attention by someone in the group because caged animals must be fed, watered and monitored. If you have obligations that prevent you from working evenings or weekends, be honest about them to your mentor and yourself. Do not expect that others in the group will generously cover for you, especially during a long-term project.
- 4) Are work hours flexible around exams/finals? I knew that even our most dedicated undergrad assistants would disappear during finals week. Coursework is an undergrad’s first priority because they need good grades to move onto advanced degree programs. Our most dedicated teams impressively worked out schedules for holidays and finals before I even addressed the issue. However, not all research groups consider student finals when scheduling experiments and even those that do, often forget. If you see a major project being designed that will conflict with your course finals, make sure that you address the issue. And if you are unwilling to work during finals week, be honest about it and post those dates as early as possible as a reminder. Finally, make sure that you consider finals when you design your own experiments since it is very difficult to get others to cover you at that time.
- Ask what your initial research will entail as well as what experience and skills you can acquire through sustained work with a research group (experimental techniques/procedures, data management, etc.). Keep in mind that you (especially inexperienced undergrads) may not initially understand the answer to this question. Experimental techniques may be mentioned of which you are unfamiliar. Don’t let this intimidate you, just clarify that you do not have experience with these techniques and ask if you will be given substantial instruction and supervision. The answer to this question is usually “Yes”.
- Ask whether you can expect to earn an independent project. I say earn an independent project rather than be given an independent project because independent projects are costly and as such, students often have to earn the responsibility by demonstrating accurate and reliable research skills. In our lab, it was the students that devoted a great deal of time to the lab that earned independent projects not the students that contributed 1-2 hours per week. Those that had very limited time to contribute often could only assist on existing projects. Their contribution was still valuable but they could not manage an independent project with so little time.
- If the project produces publishable data will I be included as an author? Find out if the research group or mentor has defined guidelines for assigning authorship. If possible, get these in writing. This is a question that I feel all students should ask very early in a research relationship. It is difficult but critical to define expectations for credit, especially if your research progresses so that you become a responsible and intellectual contributor.
- After the interview, ask yourself whether your questions were met with comfortable open answers or derision and disregard. Did the fellow students honestly share their experiences or were their responses guarded? If you do not feel that your questions were met with thoughtful and respectful responses, then this may not be a good environment in which to work. Students can sometimes get caught up in the opportunity of working with a prestigious research group and ignore the warning signs during an interview. Then, a couple months (or years) later when they have invested a considerable amount of time and effort in the lab, they are obligated to continue because leaving would result in a significant loss of time, effort and money. Consider the work environment when making a decision to join a research group. Remember, you will be “living” there for a significant amount of time.
In the August issue of Scholarly Messenger, I will examine some questions young researchers should ask themselves when considering whether to stay with a research group or laboratory.
Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.
Alice Young, associate vice president for research/research integrity, is a contributing author/editor.