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A mentor’s acid test

Mutual respect, guidance and support are key to a fruitful relationship with trainees, says W. Larry Kenney.

I've mentored PhD students for 30-plus years, guiding 24 of them through a research-intensive doctoral programme with their integrity and sense of humour intact. And I've learnt some lessons along the way.

Give your graduate students responsibility, power and credit. Good students are resourceful and insightful. Teach them that it's OK to give wrong answers, because that steers the discussion in the right direction. Each student in my lab takes primary responsibility for one or more projects, beginning as early as their second semester. That sense of ownership breeds both attention to detail and focused progress towards the success of the project.

Modern-day science is a team sport. Foster strong teaching–learning relationships among all members of your research team. Senior PhD students help mentor junior colleagues, and postdocs help mentor senior PhD students. To foster these interactions, we create multilevel research teams for each project.

Only mutual respect can create a true team mentality. I think every student inherently wants to do the right thing and be a valued contributor and — given the opportunity — will rise to the occasion. My students know that if they do their jobs with a sense of pride and integrity, I will always support them.

Help your students to feel valued. Each PhD student comes in with unique knowledge, quirks, skills and abilities. It makes no sense to treat them all equally. However, it is vitally important to treat them all fairly.

Credit: Adapted from Getty

Create the right culture. Your career path should serve as the roadmap for your students' burgeoning development as young scientists. Your positive accomplishments become their professional goals.

Help your students to develop professionally. Get them to professional meetings as often as possible, and introduce them to the big names in your field. Teach them to write grant proposals with realistic budgets and to review manuscripts; most importantly, challenge them to think and reason under pressure.

Seek and deserve allegiance. Little is more off-putting than going to a professional conference and hearing students complain about their graduate programme, university or mentor. It reflects poorly on them and on their mentor. If you hope for loyalty and trust from your students, make sure that you deserve it.

Evaluate prospective mentees' character, motivation and work ethic. Simply being a good judge of people is one of a mentor's most important traits. Applicant statements that say, “I am extremely interested in your research area and am also considering marine biology and maybe taxidermy,” tell me that the student isn't ready for directed doctoral studies. I also rely heavily on input from my current team about an applicant's potential fit.

If you can't laugh with your students, find another job. I love academia because of my relationships and interactions with my PhD students and postdocs. They love to share stories about me, and I laugh harder than they do because I don't mind them seeing me as fallible and, well, because they are darned funny. My students know that my joking about our mutual missteps in an open and appropriate way is a sign of caring.

Retreat to advance. As my lab has grown, integration, planning, organization and project staffing has become more challenging. Some years ago we began having an annual lab retreat: 2–3 days off-site where we combine science, fun and team-building. We return with proposed meeting abstracts, publications and grant proposals, and a renewed sense of camaraderie.

Enjoy the journey.

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Kenney, W. A mentor’s acid test. Nature 545, 377 (2017).

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