How to choose a good mentor

Telemachus and Mentor in the Odyssey by Pablo E. Fabisch

Telemachus and Mentor in the Odyssey by Pablo E. Fabisch

A critical decision for a young scientist is choosing a mentor. Often when new students begin graduate school, they have ambiguous and maybe misguided ideas about how to choose a thesis advisor/principal investigator (PI). It is, however, one of the most important choices a scientist makes and dramatically impacts the trainee’s career trajectory. So a fundamental question that plagues most beginners is: What makes a good mentor? How do we evaluate the mentorship capabilities of an advisor? We also need to keep in mind that the goals one might have as a graduate student may evolve to those of a postdoctoral researcher and those situations require different considerations. I will discuss both briefly.

Here are some key points that young scientists should think about when choosing their mentor:


Research area: A graduate student often enters grad school with specific interests. However, it is good practice to cast a wider net and explore all areas when judging which lab to rotate in. If a student is passionate enough about science, in all likelihood more than one question, if asked in the relevant fashion, will pique his or her interests. So, be sure to investigate the potential advisor’s work, and not dismiss a topic by the sound of it. A good way of doing this is to search for publications on PubMed and find out if the papers propose sound experiments to answer questions and form ideas about the commonly used experimental techniques. Before committing a good part of your academic career to an advisor, knowing how your time will be used in the lab is of paramount importance. For instance, a good choice of a lab, especially in the postdoctoral stages, is one that will train you in a variety of different techniques and systems and is constantly keeping up with the latest technology.


Scientific vs. mentorship ability: These two are perhaps the most important criteria. While it is imperative that a student is engaged in the research area of choice, the deciding factor in a student’s journey to becoming a successful scientist is great mentorship. If the advisor cannot exercise good scientific thinking then he or she will not be able to train you. Keep in mind that there may be inherent differences in how your PI trains you depending on whether he or she is young vs. established and tenured vs. nontenured. A young scientist may be inexperienced but still be a good mentor, whereas a more established scientist may not spend as much time in the lab due to administrative pressures. The size of the lab, in terms of number of personnel, also matters; sometimes in a big lab the PI may not be able to give each trainee individual attention. You have to decide how much hands-on time you need to be well trained. Judging the scientific ability of a younger scientist is also tricky because their publication record may be sparse. However, a tenured professor will hold a publication record that is easily perused. Having said that, although the publication record gives an insight into the scientific ability, it does not guarantee superior mentorship.

Great mentors will spend a lot of time discussing science and guiding projects while leaving space for development of the student or postdoctoral fellow. They should also encourage outside activities like teaching, attending conferences, summer internships, and/or shadowing potential future career personnel. Good mentors will also support the career choices made by their students or postdocs, write strong recommendation letters, and provide necessary guidance when required to further their students’ careers.

So how would a potential trainee research all of these criteria to make a decision? A good way of figuring out the mentorship capability of an advisor is by talking to the people in that lab and seeing if they are happy and thriving. It is also a good idea to talk to them about the work ethics of the lab before deciding to join. Another method is to look at the faculty members’ track record for training. They should have a trainee list available on their website and usually it will allude to their current status (if not, ask the PI). If a substantial number of students or postdocs have go on to academia or successful scientific careers, then it may be a good choice for a lab. It is also equally important to note what previous students or postdocs are pursuing if not academia, especially if that is something you are considering for yourself. If only those who go on to academic positions are listed it may not be a good place to pursue nontraditional career choices.


Personal career goals and preferences: Before picking a potential lab it is critical to review your own goals and expectations from the graduate or postdoctoral experience. It is a significant time commitment and requires much forethought. A few things to keep in mind are the sort of mentorship that you would respond best to. Some scientists like to be micromanaged whereas others like hands-off training. Some trainees respond to constructive criticism and feedback whereas others can handle negative criticism and strict management.

Also ultimate career choices matter. In graduate school you may want to investigate nontraditional careers and it is important that your advisor supports your pursuit of those avenues. If you are looking for a postdoctoral lab, you may ultimately want to remain in academia. In this case, the publication record of the lab and the advisor’s willingness to train you for an independent project should be discussed prior to starting. For postdocs, obtaining fellowships requires training plans and extensive support from the mentor and he/she should be encouraging and willing to allow you to carve your own niche in science from the projects you start in the lab, as well as take those projects with you when you start your own lab if that is your goal.

Lastly, mentorship does not necessarily have to be provided by your PI; it can be anyone you admire or are comfortable sharing your concerns with. Mentorship is not something that is guaranteed by the contractual graduate student or postdoc appointment and hence it is imperative that you seek it elsewhere if your PI does not provide adequate guidance. Both graduate school and beyond are known to be notoriously difficult phases of a young scientist’s life, and a good mentor will greatly smooth that journey.

About the Author:

Arunika is a post-doctoral researcher in the labs of Drs. Michael Lampson and Ben Black at the University of Pennsylvania. She is working on the mechanism of centromere inheritance and maintenance in the mammalian germline.
Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.