Over my career as a scientist I had the opportunity to mentor a number of students; both as a graduate student and then as a postdoc. Most summers I had one summer student who I dedicated time and effort to; both in teaching my research to, as well as teaching the skills necessary to assist me. Over the years I hope that I have honed my skills; and they have certainly been tested. Although I am convinced one of my students will literally be the next Leonardo De Vinci some of them were more challenging (both due to personality and ability).
This summer has certainly been different. In May I hung up my lab coat and became the Academic Programs Administrator at my institution. With this change came an awful lot of responsibility. I am the associate director of the summer academy on campus; I therefore had to recruit, assign, admit, and organize training for 62 summer students who ranged in age from 16-22. Every week we had invited speakers to give seminars on their research; work in progress talks from various summer students with discussions afterwards; not to mention a couple of social activities. Going from 1 student per summer to 62, was definitely interesting. I learned a lot about myself in the process.
While I had the students, I was also responsible for another 2 individuals. In my new role I was asked to mentor a “regional occupational program” student for a month. I also had the good fortune to have a teaching assistant for 12 weeks, which was a wonderful help and I was her direct supervisor. So really I went from 1 to 64. I wasn’t taking a tiny nibble at something; I was really having a ginormous bite at it! Anyone who knows me would agree that I like a challenge, and this was certainly that. As my salsa instructor says “if you are going to make a mistake, make it a glorious mistake and just go for it”. That is exactly what I did!
Being the supervisor of the students went actually very well. Some of them appeared to be surprised that I treated them as young adults. I decided that if they were able to apply to the program, persuade a mentor to recruit them into their lab, and complete the necessary paperwork then they were mature enough for that. I believe that actually helped my rapport with the students. I had an open door policy so that they could come and see me at any point to discuss any problems they were having (which thankfully really didn’t happen much) or questions about their future career (which happened an awful lot!). I really enjoyed all the interactions I had with the students. I even managed to give experimental advice to some summer students and their day to day supervisors!
The vast majority of the time the students spent in their labs but I certainly got to know many of them.
As for my direct reports who I saw all the time, I faced a few different challenges. Just as when I was in the lab, I felt obligated to continually ensure they were busy. At times that was really quite hard as I needed to either learn what to do myself, or I had to take the time to teach them so they could proceed. There were also some very busy points when things needed to be done urgently and I had to remember to take a breath before giving a million different orders. My time mentoring others in the lab certainly came in very useful at this point. Over the years I have struggled with maintaining the correct balance between friendliness and being a supervisor. I hope that I achieved it this year; although both of my reports were so friendly and helpful I am not convinced it was a true test of my supervisory ability. Perhaps I need to practise on others who aren’t as willing to work hard, learn and complete the job without my applying constant pressure.
The key advice I would give about supervising others is:
1) You need to treat the individual with respect and trust. Once you do that I believe most will try their utmost not to let you down.
2) Give credit when it is due. I was very vocal about the achievements of reports as I wanted to ensure they knew I appreciated their efforts.
3) Deal with issues as soon as they appear in as calm a manner as possible. If you correct behavioral issues immediately in a professional manner hopefully the individual will learn how to respond to constructive criticism in an appropriate way.
While it is hard sometimes to let go of control, it was a good lesson for me to be reminded of. Once I trusted my assistants, it allowed me to focus on the more important responsibilities that I could not delegate. It also helped my personal growth as a leader. I know that sometimes when people are asked to be a mentor they hesitate as it really is a time and effort commitment. I try to approach it as an opportunity to better my supervisory skills and I feel confident that I am much better at it than when I took on my first summer student during my PhD. Without my past experiences I would have been unable to improve. If you are given the opportunity to be a mentor I urge you to think carefully about it. If you have the time, and are willing, it can be a wonderful experience for both you and the mentee; however if you think it is a free pair of hands you will be doing both yourself and the student a disservice. I have been fortunate to have some truly fantastic mentors, I hope one day to emulate them.
I will say that all my reports have now left and it is strangely quiet; you could even say that I miss them!