Eight Tips on Mentoring New Lab Members

Mentoring Scientists
At some point in your scientific career, you may find yourself mentoring a new lab member. Whether or not you have experience as a mentor, it can feel both daunting and exciting to guide someone’s professional and personal development.

A good mentor can be invaluable. By passing on their wisdom, experience, and connections, a mentor can help their mentee navigate challenges and develop into a well-rounded member of the scientific community.
As a busy scientist, you may feel you lack the time to be a good mentor. When we surveyed scientists on the largest number of projects they’ve been involved with at once, 52% of respondents said it was 4 projects or more. However, taking the time to mentor can benefit you directly, too. For example, as an effective mentor, you can ensure projects stay on track and boost productivity in the lab. A successful mentee can also mean more grants, publications, and collaborations for your lab. Mentoring can also help you develop your leadership and management skills, which are useful skills outside of the lab as well.

Here are eight tips on how to effectively mentor a new lab member.

Welcome Your Mentee

Starting in a new lab is an exciting time, but it can also be intimidating and confusing when you don’t know your way around and everyone feels like a stranger. You can probably relate to this—frantically looking through every cupboard in the lab because you don’t know where everything is, not knowing who to ask for help, and feeling overwhelmed with all there is to learn.

When a new researcher joins the lab, the first thing you should do is help them settle into their new environment. Here are some things you can do:

  • Properly introduce them to everyone in the lab
  • Give them a lab tour
  • Provide a brief history of the research conducted in the lab
  • Direct them towards essential reading
  • Include them in lab meetings and social activities
  • Have lunch together as a group
  • Check in frequently to see if they have questions or need anything

Personalize Your Mentorship

Everyone has different motivations, skill levels, and expectations. Is your mentee an undergraduate student who wants to do some research before medical school, a graduate student aiming to contribute to a specific field, or an experienced researcher looking to broaden their knowledge and skill set? Learn about your mentee’s background and motivations so you can tailor your mentorship accordingly.

If you are serving as both a mentor and a supervisor, understanding your mentee’s motivations will help you assign projects that are fulfilling and relevant to their long term goals. Ultimately, you want to ensure your mentee is working on the right project for their interest and skill level. If your mentee is just starting out in research, maybe they shouldn’t be working on a difficult project with a high chance of failure. Rather, start them off with projects that will build their confidence and equip them with skills they will need in the long term.

Set Expectations and Goals

What do you and your mentee want to get out of the mentoring relationship? Establish logistical expectations, such as how often you will meet, and set boundaries to outline what the mentoring relationship will and will not encompass.

Once you understand your mentee's motivations, you can help them set goals that are relevant to their long term aspirations. Be sure to set SMART goals that are:

  • Specific. What exactly do you want to accomplish?
  • Measurable. How do you specifically measure success?
  • Attainable. Do you believe you can achieve it?
  • Realistic. Is it possible to achieve?
  • Time-sensitive. When is the deadline?

Recognize Achievements

Scientific research can be discouraging. Sometimes, when faced with setbacks or failed experiments, it’s easy to lose track of how much progress you’re making.

When your mentee does achieve goals or milestones, be sure to recognize them. By celebrating your mentee’s successes and achievements, you help build their confidence and keep them motivated. Consider bringing up their achievements during a lab meeting, or setting aside time to meet, one-on-one, to discuss successes and future directions.

Work on Setting Goals

Our survey indicates that a staggering 82% of respondents sometimes feel overwhelmed at work. One of the best ways to manage this is to break down your work and projects into smaller goals.

During your commute to and from the lab, try setting and evaluating goals for yourself. Goal setting is often overlooked but it can be a major driver of productivity. Try setting SMART goals—goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-sensitive. Whether they’re short-term or long-term, goals will provide the clarity and direction you need to get more done.

Encourage Growth

Provide opportunities and experiences to your mentee that will promote career and personal growth. For example, you can involve your mentee in grant writing to sharpen their scientific writing skills, introduce your mentee to collaborators to strengthen teamwork skills, or encourage your mentee to attend seminars and conferences to grow their knowledge. You can also encourage your mentee to give talks and poster presentations at conferences to hone their communication skills and sharpen their networking skills.

Not only will encouraging your mentee to network allow them to gain valuable skills and connections, but it can give them a boost of motivation and inspiration from the insights of other researchers.

More tips on staying motivated in the lab >

Offer Constructive Feedback

The best way to help your mentee improve is to offer constructive feedback. When doing so, keep these tips in mind:

  • Be positive. In addition to pointing out areas of improvement, acknowledge your mentee’s accomplishments. Positive reinforcement will give your mentee the confidence and motivation to improve, which is the end goal.
  • Be direct. While it may be the easy thing to do, avoid being vague with your feedback. Be as specific as possible to avoid confusion and to give your mentee concrete examples of how they can improve.
  • Focus on the work. While you will be pointing out areas of improvement, focus on the work itself and don’t make it a personal attack on your mentee.
  • Make it a two-way exchange. Let them know that their opinion matters too. In exchange, ask for constructive feedback on your mentoring and listen carefully. Mentoring is a learning experience for you, too.

Foster Curiosity

Curiosity drives scientific research, but how do you teach this attribute? Start by encouraging your mentee to ask insightful questions such as, “Why is this experiment done instead of something else?” or, “Why is research moving in this direction?”

The ability to ask, “Why?” is a powerful tool that can inspire your mentee to read through relevant literature, have meaningful conversations with peers, think about their research differently, and never stop learning. Maybe your mentee can even inspire you to think about your research in a new light.

As an experienced scientist, it’s easy to overlook ways to improve your workflow. Perhaps your procedures are more complex than they need to be. You may not even be aware of how inefficient your procedures are until you start asking, “Why?” Question the status quo.

Scientist working in the lab

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