Finding the Right Research Lab: A Website for Reviewing Research Mentors
By Marianne Evola
When I speak with students about Responsible Research Conduct, I strongly advocate the need for them to assess a research environment and/or mentor and actively decide if it will be productive work environment for them. In fact, one of the earliest columns that I wrote for the Scholarly Messenger addressed this issue in detail.
Since I wrote that column, I regularly distribute it to students, especially talented undergrads, when I speak to them about responsible research. I've always asserted that active and informed selection of a research lab/mentor is one of the primary ways that students can protect themselves from bad research decisions as their careers evolve. I encourage them to utilize their interview time to ask good questions that will clarify expectations and reveal the nature of the lab atmosphere so that they can assess whether the lab would be a good fit with their temperament and career goals. I also encourage students to speak with multiple lab members rather than just the interviewer/principle investigator. Speaking with multiple members of the lab provides a variety of perspectives of the work environment. Diverse input is critical for making an informed research lab selection, especially when making a decision that will trigger a cross country or global move to work and study with a research mentor.
That's why I was intrigued a few days ago when a timely email popped into my Inbox from Retraction Watch. The Retraction Watch report described a new website, QCist that may eventually be the research lab equivalent of "Rate My Professor."
The new site allows graduate students and postdocs to anonymously review their mentor and lab so that other students can utilize their reviews to assess potential mentors. Like most online tools, I immediately realized that it could be a useful tool as students work to select a mentor and/or research environment that will maximize their productivity. However, at the same time, I also realized that the tool could be abused to inaccurately trash researchers, or ineptly applied by inexperienced student researchers that may not entirely understand the research world nor the qualities of a good research mentor.
Ultimately, the site creator/s hope the site will assist students and postdocs avoid unhealthy research environments and instead, find research environments that meet their needs to enhance their career development. Specifically, the site director stated that the team hopes the site reviewers will expose mentors that have patterns of verbal and/or physical abuse. But also reveal labs that have poor research practices or those that provide poor or inaccurate research instruction.
Over the course of my career, I have listened to colleagues describe mentors that fit each of the descriptions above, so like the site creators, I know that unhealthy research environments exist. I agree that the website will eventually be helpful by enabling trainees to avoid the damaging impact of bad research labs and mentors. However, the small amount of time that I spent on QCist revealed that the site is currently in its infancy. I searched the names of several prominent colleagues and my search did not turn up any results. Thus far, only a small population of scientists have been rated, so the site is not currently very useful for assessing potential mentors. However, if the site grows in popularity, more scientists will be rated and the site could be a useful resource for students.
Admittedly, I have never used the similar the "Rate My Professor" site, which allows undergrads to rate classroom instruction provided by professors. However, I have a general idea of how the site serves students. I've also known colleagues that look at their own reviews on "Rate My Professor" to assess whether they could address reported weaknesses in their teaching strategies. That being said, I don't think that students are always the best judges of strong vs. weak instruction. When I was a graduate student, my mentor was feared by a lot of students in our department. On one occasion, I remember witnessing a more senior student ask a popular professor if he would be willing to serve on her dissertation committee. To give her a hard time, he expressed mock exasperation at the number of students that ask him to serve on their committee and then asked why she had not asked my mentor. As the student embarrassingly floundered for a reply, he immediately interjected, "I'll tell you why you won't ask her, because you are chicken, that's why. Everyone in your division thinks that I'm easier than her." I witnessed a few similar scenarios during my graduate training. There were many students that thought they knew all about my mentor, yet they had never even set foot in our lab. The question is, were their assessments correct? Well, having taken classes from both my mentor and the more popular faculty member described above, I can tell you that his classes were much easier than hers. In fact, his classes were the easiest classes that I took in graduate school. As a student, I may have considered this a good thing. The problem is, years later I don't recall any information that I have specifically retained from his classes. Whereas, a great deal of my retained classroom knowledge, relative to my discipline, comes from my mentor's classes. So, in my experience, the popular professor was not the better professor.
"Rate My Professor" did not exist when I was a student but I wonder if I would have missed out on the valuable instruction that I received from my mentor if it had existed. Would I have sought out a more popular or easier professor to serve as my mentor if I'd had access to online reviews? I like to think that I would have made the same decisions, but it is hard for me to decisively say what I would have done as a brand-new graduate student. That was a long time ago. However, even at that time I knew that I had not chosen the easy professor, because everyone who feared my mentor made sure to mention it.
I have reservations about the QCist site. However, I also feel that the site will be useful to students as demonstrated by my decision to discuss this Retraction Watch report. Yes, ultimately when the site is in wider use, I do think that it would be useful tool, that could contribute to mentor selection. However, like all online review systems, students need to remember that they must consider the content of reviews to see if the issues raised by reviewers would be of concern to them. For example, my fellow students were afraid of my graduate mentor because she had a reputation of asking tough questions and/or assertively critiquing student work. The reputation was well deserved because she did challenge her students and encouraged us to challenge one another. However, these issues never bothered me. Prior to graduate school, I had work experience that had left me with a pretty thick skin for criticism. Because of my background, I was not intimidated by her candor nor her inquires. Rather, I always appreciated the input because it improved my ideas and work and readied me to face the inquiries of a larger, less forgiving audience. The concerns of the other students did not influence my decisions. Similarly, if students utilize the QCist site, they need to search for details and consider whether the positive and/or negative information provided by reviewers should influence their decisions.
As I weighed the positives and negatives of the website, I luckily had the opportunity to ask some graduate students their opinion of the site and if they thought that it would assist them while making future decisions about mentors and research environments. As the students provided their feedback, I was happy and relieved to hear them reflect my thoughts back to me. Two opposing opinions arose. One group thought the site would be extraordinarily useful as they moved on and searched for postdoctoral opportunities. The other students thought that it would be too much work to filter through the opinions and reviews which may or may not be applicable to their own career goals and mentoring needs. As usual, conversing with students, even cynical students, triggered my optimism.
Yes, I maintain my reservations about the QCist site. I'm concerned that people will abuse the site to vengefully damage the reputation of competitors or academic enemies. Also, I'm concerned that like most review sites, users with negative experiences will frequent the site and bias reviews toward the negative. However, my conversations with students have alleviated my concerns that they will not effectively filter reviews to find useful information while omitting irrelevant information. The students convinced me that site will be beneficial and that they could effectively utilize the information provided by QCist.com. If the site protects future researchers from being stuck in unhealthy labs and instead, empowers them find effective research environments, mentors and partners, it will be making a valuable contribution to the research world.
Marianne Evola is the director of the Human Research Protection Program in the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.