Choosing a Mentor

Choosing a Mentor


Selecting a research mentor is one of the most important decisions students will make during their graduate career. The process should begin with serious introspection: Why am I in graduate school? What do I hope to gain from this experience? Where do I want to be in my career five years from now? What environment is most suitable for my style of learning and work?

Without self-knowledge and a clear view of career goals, no one can intelligently select a path to achieve those goals. If you don't know where you're going, any map will do. Thus, in what follows I will outline some issues that should be considered, but evaluating their significance will depend on your personal judgment.

The Research Rotations provide an opportunity for you to discover which lab best suits your needs. This is the major function of Research Rotations; learning techniques and accomplishing research are secondary goals. For this reason, it is important to "hang out" in your Rotation labs even when you're not doing bench-work.

Students in specialized programs, such as Molecular Medicine, need to select their Rotation advisers carefully, and discuss the specialized needs of the Program in advance. Not all faculty members are appropriate potential mentors for all Programs. The considerations outlined here are written for students choosing a PhD thesis adviser, but many of them also apply to the selection of a post-doctoral research mentor.

Area of Research

A critical factor determining your happiness and your success at science is your enthusiasm about what you're doing -- you have to believe that your work is important, that you can make a difference in this field of knowledge and that you can succeed. There are lots of interesting research projects available, and most people become enthusiastic about the work they're doing once they really get into it. Good science is always exciting and stimulating. But if there is some area in particular which piques your curiosity or motivates you, then this should be the major factor in choosing an advisor.

Mentoring vs Independence

Some people want or need to be in a lab where they work side-be-side with their mentor and receive frequent, individual attention.  Others are more interested in developing their own ideas and establishing themselves as independent investigators.  You will need to determine which style best suits your needs.  In a small lab you are more likely to get individual attention from the lab director.  In a bigger lab, or in a lab headed by someone with substantial administrative responsibilities, you may get strategic advice from the lab director, but day-to-day guidance may come from senior student or postdoc.

Availability of Resources

The availability of intellectual, technical and financial resources can significantly affect the success of your research.  You should discuss these explicitly with any prospective mentor.  The lab should be able to help you access a broad range of advice, expertise, techniques and equipment to enable you to pursue your research at the cutting edge.  These resources can be available either within the lab, the Department or through interactions with other labs.  The mentor should have adequate grant funding to support the research, so that your ability to do experiments is limited by your abilities, not primarily by dollars.  You can get an approximate idea of grant funding through the NIH Web page, but you also can -- and should -- ask the prospective mentor about other funding sources.

Evaluating the Productivity of a Lab

The past productivity of a lab or a mentor is often a guide to the future.  You can find out how productive the lab has been by looking at the publication record on Medline.  Alternatively, you can ask a prospective mentor for his or her CV (the faculty all know what your resume looks like -- you should know what theirs looks like). In examining the publication record, take account of the number of publications and the scientific reputation of the journals (you can tell which are the good journals -- they're the ones you're assigned in classes and journal clubs).

Don't forget that a big lab will have more papers -- but not necessarily more papers per person.  The issue for you is, which labs have produced the most successful students.  Two first-author papers in a good to excellent journal is a reasonable goal for a PhD thesis; one is a minimum, three is good, more than three is exceptional.  Second-author and middle-author papers are very helpful, demonstrating productivity and a willingness to collaborate.

Personality Issues

You will spend most of your waking hours with your lab-mates.  You should be able (at the least) to communicate freely with your mentor and lab-mates and feel comfortable working in the lab.  Ideally, the lab should provide a community that is supportive not only intellectually, technically and financially, but also emotionally during the inevitable periods of disappointment when work is not going well.  If, on balance, you persistently don't look forward to coming in to work, there is something wrong.  You should consider changing labs or changing careers.

Bad Reasons for Choosing a Lab

Any sense of obligation whatsoever.  It is not uncommon for a student to indicate early in the year a desire to work in a particular lab, but to change directions as the semester proceeds.  Sometimes a faculty member will specifically recruit a student.   Occasionally a student will feel that the Professor "needs" the student in order for a project to get done.  For any of these reasons and more, the student might feel obliged to commit to a faculty member, even though the student might prefer to work somewhere else.  However, the graduate programs are set up so that students choose their research lab after the third rotation; nothing that happens previously constitutes a substantive obligation.  The decision about choosing a mentor is of prime importance to the student and is less critical to the faculty member.  The student's interests should be paramount.

The opinions of other students should be listened to closely, but not taken literally.  Sometimes a lab which is bad for one student will be good for another.  Sometimes a negative (or positive) remark by a student will reflect more on the student than the faculty member.

The length of time it might take to get a PhD in one lab or another is often discussed.  However, none of the labs here has a large enough group of students to generate statistically significant differences in this figure. Research is the study of the unknown, and one of the unknowns is how long it's going to take.

Choosing an advisor is an important decision, but you should not lose sight of the fact that the most important determinant of your success will be your hard work, technical skill, good judgment and creativity.  No mentor can give those to you -- the best a mentor can do is create an environment where you can achieve at your highest level.  Choosing a mentor who is right for you is your first significant opportunity to exercise scientific judgment, but it also is an opportunity for you to demonstrate self-knowledge.


~ Michael Weber, PhD
University of Virginia