Negative Experiences in Undergraduate Mentoring and How to Fix Them.

Title: “Where’s My Mentor?!” Characterizing Negative Mentoring Experiences in Undergraduate Life Science Research

Authors: Lisa B. Limeri, Muhammad Zaka Asif, Benjamin H. T. Bridges, David Esparza, Trevor T. Tuma, Daquan Sanders, Alexander J. Morrison, Pallavi Rao, Joseph A. Harsh, Adam V. Maltese, and Erin L. Dolan

First author’s institution: University of Georgia

Journal: CBE Life Science Education Vol 18, No 4 (2019) [Open access]

Last summer was my first time mentoring another researcher. Throughout my career, I’ve had great mentors and I wanted to create that experience for my mentee. However, I’d had no formal training in mentoring, so I did what I imagine most graduate students do: mentor how they were mentored. After all, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine hadn’t released their report on effective mentoring yet.

Yet mentoring isn’t something that should be done on the fly. In fact, for undergraduate students especially, mentoring plays a large role in the researcher’s personal and professional development. While many blog post focus on good mentoring strategies, few focus on the types of behaviors mentees wish their mentors would avoid. After all, learning requires both knowing what to do and what not to do. Today’s paper focuses on negative mentoring experiences as reported by undergraduate life science researchers, though the findings seem broadly applicable.

For this study, the authors distributed an email survey to life science professors and academic advisors across the country to send to their students. One of the questions on the survey asked students to rate their mentoring experience on an 11-point scale (-5 to 5). The authors then contacted students who said they had less than ideal experiences (categorized as a 3 or below). Through this process, the authors found 33 students from 10 institutions who agreed to be interviewed. After the interviews, the authors classified statements from the interviews by the type of negative mentoring described, which resulted in 7 categories. The authors were also interested in whether the students saw the “bad mentoring” as actively harmful or just a lack of positive mentoring since mentee perceptions of negative mentoring influence the outcome of the negative mentoring.

The authors did not try to make any conclusions about the prevalence of the seven categories outside of the study or their level of harm to the mentee. Therefore, the results are presented in alphabetical order.

1. Absenteeism

Nearly all of the undergraduate researchers reported some degree of absenteeeism by their mentors. The undergraduates said they had expected to meet with their mentors regularly and that their mentors would provide guidance when needed. Many did not find this to be the case, however, often seeing their mentors as having many other commitments that prevented these from occurring. Some of the undergraduates even reported reaching out to their mentors via email and never hearing back. The undergraduates tended to see absenteeism as signs their mentors did not see them as worthy of attention or as doing interesting/valuable work. Interestingly, the student researchers did not see absenteeism as actively harmful but instead as a lack of positive mentoring.

2. Abuse of Power

Nearly all of the undergraduate researchers also reported some type of abuse of power by their mentors, which they characterized as their mentors taking advantage of their higher rank and acting inappropriately. For example, many researchers expressed concerns over negative repercussions, such as a lower grade in a course taught by their mentor or a bad recommendation letter, for making mistakes, wanting to leave the lab, or trying to address problems with their mentor. In addition, many students expressed that their mentor went beyond correcting them when they made mistakes and instead belittled them or threatened to replace them with another undergraduate researcher.

On the other hand, when a graduate student was the mentor, some of their researchers described how their mentors would take all the credit for work they had done and not recognize the contributions of the undergraduate researchers. Yet when it came to mistakes, misunderstandings, or miscommunications, the graduate student mentors would place the responsibility solely on the undergraduate researcher.

The undergraduate researchers saw these abuses of power as actively harmful forms of “mentoring” and said these actions caused them to question whether they belonged in science.

3. Interpersonal mismatch

In many labs and research experience programs (such as the United States’ National Science Foundation’s REUs), mentors are assigned to mentees rather than allowing the mentee to choose who to work with. Unfortunately, some of the pairings may not work for one reason or another. The undergraduate researchers tended to describe these reasons as personality differences, work style differences, or communication preferences. The undergraduates saw these mismatches as no one’s fault but thought the mismatches prevented them from developing a close relationship with their mentors.

4. Lack of Career and Technical Support

All of the undergraduate students in the study reported wanting, needing, or seeking scientific or technical advice or career guidance from their mentors. Some of these student expressed wanting to understand the purpose and value of their research or how their project fits into the larger work of the lab since their mentors never provided that information.

When talking about graduate school, careers, or other research related topics such as publishing, the undergraduates expressed how their mentors would not discuss these topics and instead, thought it was the mentee’s job to find this information on their own.

The undergraduates tended to see these as missed opportunities rather than as actively harmful. Due to the lack of support from their mentors, some of the researchers saw doing research as a poor investment since they could have devoted their time to something more fruitful in terms of professional development.

5. Lack of Psychosocial support

Most of the undergraduate researchers also expressed wanting more encouragement and support from their mentors. The undergraduates expressed this as wanting verbal encouragement or in the case of REUs and other formal research programs, attending the program poster session. Some of the undergraduates also felt their mentors were unapproachable since faculty mentors often had their office doors closed and graduate students often wore headphones in the lab.

The lack of psychosocial support also manifested as behaviors that prevented the development of trusting behaviors such as mentors not allowing undergraduates to use certain equipment or by giving unsolicited advice on other lab member’s personal lives.

Again, the undergraduates tended to see a lack of psychosocial support as a missed opportunity to build close relationships with their mentors rather than as actively harmful.

6. Misaligned expectations

Most of the undergraduates expressed that their mentors had unspoken or unreasonable expectations that were out of line with their own. For example, many undergraduates expected that research would be intellectually stimulating and they would make quick progress on their projects, not realizing that research can be monotonous and progress is far from assured. In addition, many undergraduates wanted to do the “thinking” on their projects, but their mentors often did the planning of the project with the student just doing what their mentor decided.

On the the other hand, some students did report mentors with unreasonable expectations. One undergraduate student reported being expected to work at least 30 hours a week while taking classes even though their contract was only for 20 hours a week. In addition, some of the students reported their mentors expected them to have the skills of a graduate student.

The undergraduates saw the unrealistic expectations as actively harmful while the unspoken expectations were seen as absences of good mentoring.

7. Unequal treatment

Unequal treatment was only reported by a small number of the students interviewed. In some cases, the unequal treatment was due to the researcher’s gender or race or due to their professional plans (not wanting to go to graduate school) or their personal choices (wanting to have children). In other cases, the unequal treatment was due to favoritism by the mentor. Regardless of the cause, the unequal treatment was seen as actively harmful by the undergraduate researcher.

What can we do?

If you are like me, you’ve probably identified some of the “bad mentoring” approaches in your own mentoring.. To help create a more positive mentoring experience for all mentees, the authors suggest the following:

  • Clearly define the expectations and allow the mentee to set their own expectations. If their expectations are different from your own, negotiate the expectations so that everyone is on the same page.
  • Set aside time to be available to your mentee. This be could a set time to respond to their emails or just leaving your office door open during parts of the day.
  • Don’t make meetings all about the mentee’s research. Make sure to set aside time for the mentee to discuss careers and big picture questions.
  • Make sure to encourage your mentees, especially when things go wrong. Share your own failures and set a norm that failing and making mistakes is part of research.
  • Reflect on how your behavior may be seen by your mentees. What you may think of as a suggestion may come off as a directive due to the power differential between mentors and mentees.
  • Allow for a safe avenue for reporting negative behaviors or providing feedback. One method could be having an accountability partner who does not have a stake in the mentee’s work or your work and hence, could transmit the mentee’s concerns without having to worry about repercussions.

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