Searching for A Good Mentor: It Takes A Village - Yasamin Dabiri
Searching for A Good Mentor: It Takes A Village
Being in the final stages of my PhD experience, I started to recall my early steps in search of a PhD position abroad at a world-class university: a pharmacy graduate sitting in front of a laptop, scrolling up and down websites and writing Emails. Perhaps it was the realization of how coveted PhD positions with top-tier scientists at elite universities were that taught me to value the “opportunity” itself and that made everything else a small detail in my eyes. It was at that moment that I promised myself, if I were given this opportunity, I will do everything in my power to make it a success. This is the inspiration behind the primary message I would like to pass on to candidates who are just embarking on their PhD journey: “Take matters into your own hands!”
According to a survey of PhD candidates conducted by the journal Nature in 2019, most graduate students have reported that they are not getting what they expect when it comes to supervision. This is unsurprising since doctoral supervisors are usually extremely busy senior scientists with numerous administrative and academic responsibilities. Additionally, in many cases, years away from the bench have made them less familiar with the very specific technical challenges that we students face in the lab on a day-to-day basis, which brings me to one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned during the past four years: ‘It takes a village’ to train and supervise doctoral students.
I want my parents to have all the answers!
During my early days in the group, my PhD advisor conceived a project, supposedly my PhD project, and guided me through writing applications for doctoral fellowships. I believe that his initial ideas put the first brick in the wall, which evolved and drastically transformed throughout my PhD years. This process, however, wasn’t easy. In the first group seminars, I vividly remember myself being fascinated and quite often intimidated by the complex scientific terms and methods of molecular biology, the results of my lab-mates, and the knowledge of my advisor. Looking back, this is exactly what I would be most thankful for learning or, better, “adopting” from my supervisor, his style of “scientific thinking”, since I think that no one can explicitly teach this. It was more about me studying the important papers of the group and observing his approach with regards to scientific challenges, whether in general or in response to specific projects of my colleagues. Coming from an educational system where we were used to relying on strict and close supervision and to acquiring knowledge mostly through classical means, I had my own struggles at the start of my PhD. I often found myself lost among so many questions related to the project, which I had to carefully choose from, and which only then I could try to answer. What made this transition a little smoother, in my opinion, was the open and friendly intellectual atmosphere my supervisor has fostered in the group. This is the primary thing I appreciate in my relationship with my supervisor and his lab. In such environments, learning opportunities can come through unconventional ways and at times when you least expect them, for example over a lunch conversation or during a coffee break. I was sharing an office with two other PhD students and one junior group leader, all of whom were working on related yet different topics. We used to have close conversations about each other’s new results and ideas. This was often an indirect source of inspiration to drive our own research. Things, however, were not as glamorous as they sound when it came to experiments! As someone with little experience in molecular biology techniques, I had to start from scratch in so many aspects. But it was then that “peer-mentoring” came in…!
I never thought of my older siblings!
While searching for the term “peer-mentorship”, I realized that several studies as well as many career advisors have suggested that “peer-mentoring support” can positively transform post-graduate learning. I would like to go even further and say that PhD supervision must not be a one-person job. To illustrate this, I can share what I have personally experienced. Upon joining the lab, it was soon clear to me that I was unfamiliar with most of the research themes of the group and methods used in the lab. I therefore tried to fill some of these gaps by learning from senior colleagues, because I had to. Now I think that almost everyone in the group has taught me at least one technique and has helped me with understanding a certain topic or troubleshooting a particular experiment. From my experience, having a real connection with lab-mates not only serves as a ground for a less complicated learning process, but it can also be an immediate source of motivation. In the field of natural sciences, it is not very unlikely that the primary project you were given takes months or even more than a year until you have some sort of preliminary data. That too happened to me. Although highly committed to the PhD program, I remember that those days were filled with lots of self-doubt: what am I doing here? what question am I trying to answer? are these results going to be of any value to anyone? I therefore turned to my fellow students and senior colleagues for support. I tried to get involved in their projects, and this not only introduced me to new scientific themes but gave me a sense of being part of a team, which was far more motivating and rewarding than working on your own. Nonetheless, we have to bear in mind that such group-mentoring necessitates a team spirit, which, to my experience, requires building-relationship opportunities. Therefore, PhD advisors would have a key role in enabling such culture in the group, which will ultimately have a great impact on the quality of supervision their PhD students receive.
Do not forget to visit distant relatives!
The American sociologist Jack Mezirow mentions that one of the most important areas of adult learning is freedom from habitual ways of thinking and acting. Although I got to know this by the very end of my PhD, I recognized that I was subconsciously exploiting it during my studies. The attempt of exploring new learning tools is not so uncommon among post-graduate students. However, this needn't be done only when we have given up on our primary sources, in this case PhD advisors and mentors. In other words, we should be encouraged right from the start to benefit from a variety of learning modules. The truth is that most of the practical and theoretical issues we encounter in the lab have been resolved before! I personally came to know this while trying to troubleshoot certain experiments. It was so heart-warming to realize that the smallest details of the technical problem I was trying to solve have been previously described or even answered by other scientists in professional networks, such as ResearchGate. We live in the age of unlimited sources of information. This too extends to the field of research we are working in. Indeed, it requires good skills to filter massive information for the specific knowledge that we need. However, once learned, it will provide a precious opportunity to diversify our learning sources, which can be used as a launching pad for becoming an independent researcher.
In the end, I would like to return to the beginning and emphasize, one more time, on the importance of various avenues through which we can arrive at a good PhD experience. PhD supervision does not need to be a hierarchical matter. For a better doctoral training, I had to learn to break my learning routines and combine all the different sources. My deepest appreciation goes to each and every one of them!