Innovative Mentoring

Easy steps you can take to elevate your mentoring.

In academia there are some common ‘good practice’ mentoring things. Many of us do the ‘typical’ activities that good mentors do: weekly group meetings, individual meetings, open door policy, practice presentations, intellectual engagement, iterative writing feedback on theses, grants, and papers, collaborative interactions, and promoting work-life balance. But we can do more –much more– than the basics, without it taking a ton of time. Here are some innovative ways to up your mentoring game.

Get more out of group meetings. Like many labs, we meet each week. But we rotate what we do, each in approximately equal measure: standard journal article discussion, discussion of a research article on Equity/Diversity/Inclusion (EDI), “Slide Improv”, and Fact or Fiction.

EDI articles are chosen on a rotating basis by students. They are usually primary research articles. We conscientiously choose papers from diverse areas of EDI. These discussions have been fantastic, and have led to changes in how we do and discuss things. An added benefit is that this is a visible way to show the group that EDI is important to me as their supervisor.

Slide improv gives experience thinking on the fly. One of the greatest fears students have in presenting is “what if I screw up” or “what if I forget what to say,” and slide improv gives them actual practice in how to respond to, and be more comfortable with, those moments. To do slide improv, a student makes a five-slide presentation (no animations). Another student gives it. The topic is supposed to be on something that isn’t our main research area, but does need to be something in science. They typically are a presentation of the background and results of a single publication. The student who is presenting doesn’t have to be accurate, but what they say has to be believable. Students are nervous doing this the first few times, but over time I’ve seen a marked improvement in confidence and presenting skills.

Fact or fiction gives experience in critical thinking. A student gives (brief) details and results for three papers. But one of them is completely fabricated. As a group, we try to figure out which is the fake one. This is fun, and seeing the gears turn as people sort things out is great.

To get a handle on how my students are doing, and if there are issues in the lab that need addressing, I do an anonymous poll once per year. The poll covers a range of topics on the quality of life, what is working, and what isn’t. This has been VERY HELPFUL in identifying things that need fixing (and some surprises of things that I thought were issues but are fine). I use a variation of this:

If you would the direct link to the google forms, please follow this link.

Over time, I forget which new students I’ve given ‘key advice’ and expectations. So I made a document that I give to all new students. There is a different document for undergraduate Honours Thesis, MSc, and Ph.D. students, since my advice and expectations for those students differ. The document has basic things such as how many weeks ahead to give me drafts and that all students are expected to attend group meetings, and life things like you will work long hours sometimes, but this should be the exception, not the rule.

Reading papers is important but not urgent, so gets delayed. Every 6 months I require a list of papers the students have read, annotating why they might cite it in their thesis. The expected number of papers is scaled over time. The annotations are really helpful to keep on top of reading, as a searchable document when writing, and for me to see what they are reading. Plus, with a large lab studying diverse topics, this really helps me see some papers I otherwise may miss, too! Every single student I have had make these annotations has said this was incredibly useful when writing their thesis and that they were glad they had done it.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to try out new ways of mentoring, and toss things that don’t work. I’ve tried a lot of things that just didn’t work for my group, or didn’t work for this group. I touch base frequently to see what works and doesn’t, and student’s like that I ask and it’s adaptable.

Editor’s note: The present text is an adapted version of a widely shared Twitter thread that resonated with so many of us. We thought it was of general interest and deserved to be memorialized, and hence we approached Amanda to adapt the thread to post it here.