Mentor's Role

Creating a productive mentoring relationship takes considerable time and effort on both sides, however, it is important for advisors and postdocs alike to appreciate its unique tensions and potential benefits. The tensions are, to some extent, built in: the investigator's lack of time or inclination for mentoring leaves ample room for misunderstandings or neglect. Luckily for the relationship, the benefits are largely inherent as well. The postdoc is motivated to exchange skills and hard work for guidance and entrance to a professional world.

Mentoring: Advisors can enhance the training of postdocs in both explicit and implicit ways, such as modeling good practices of research, leadership, and ethical conduct. Advisors who are too busy to fulfill mentoring duties can bring in help (such as a mentoring committee) or orient the postdoc toward institutional or other resources.

Communication: Frequent communication helps prevent problems from growing into grievances. Patience is required, as well as discernment: One postdoc might need regular, detailed instructions; another might need only to hear, “Do what excites you.” Good communication is a mutual responsibility. Postdocs and advisors alike must have the courage to raise uncomfortable issues. Regular weekly or biweekly meetings can help maintain communication. Meetings and other forms of communication are indispensable in establishing and maintaining the foundation for a mentoring relationship. It is likely that breakdowns in communication are at some level the cause of most personal problems that occur in the research environment.

Honest evaluations: Evaluations are useful only if they are honest. Good work should be acknowledged and rewarded; less-than-good work should receive equally frank appraisal. When a postdoc lacks the necessary aptitude for a career of research, the advisor must say so. No one's interests are served by allowing a subpar performance to continue indefinitely in order to avoid an unwelcome evaluation. On the other hand, evaluations should be constructive, not punitive. The objective of regular evaluations is to identify weaknesses or problems, to create plans to address them, and ultimately to raise the level of performance and eventually the success of the individual. Evaluations need not be time-consuming. Brief, regular meetings can form a basis for useful feedback, suggestions for improvement, and performance assessments. Written progress reports (for example after the first 6 months and then annually) are needed to clarify performance for the postdoc, the institution, the funding organization, and potential employers. A record of evaluations is especially important for reappointment or to find another job.

Ethical and proprietary issues: The advisor should take the lead in discussing ethical standards early and often, especially with new postdocs and with postdocs from countries where standards may differ. Authorship especially carries a great potential for misunderstandings. A good policy is for the advisor and postdoc to discuss the authorship policy early. Other issues that should be discussed include plagiarism, public presentation of results, and the integrity of data. Given the importance of responsible conduct to both the research enterprise and the careers of individual researchers, a mentor should ensure that postdocs are instructed about any ethical issues of relevance to a particular program. Such issues may include data management, the use of human subjects, experiments on animals, conflicts of interest, resolving ethical dilemmas, whistle blowing, and handling research sponsored by a for-profit entity.

Resolution of mismatch: A mismatch could be due to many reasons and may lead to a conflict of expectations and thus distract both the postdoc and the mentor from achieving their goals. There could be a mismatch of expertise or enthusiasm for the project or the lab culture. Most of the time this can be discovered early, within six months. In such cases it is advisable to have a face-to-face meeting as early as possible. A discussion can lead to resolution of issues. If not, both the postdoc and scholar should draw a plan for amicable separation. The postdoc should be allowed to look for another position, and if possible, be helped by the mentor. While seeking a new position, the postdoc should not ignore the research he is involved in.

Resolution of disputes: A dispute could occur for many reasons such as authorship issues and may turn out to be disruptive for the postdoc and mentor in achieving their goals. The sooner these issues are resolved the better. Because of their position of power, mentors have the larger responsibility in resolving disputes. When an impasse develops, the advisor (or postdoc) should not hesitate to ask  a neutral party to help resolve the issue. If the impasse persists, the postdoc can approach the Office of Postdoctoral Education for grievance resolution.

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