Executive Vice Chancellor & Provost Paul Alivisatos, with Professors Paul Fine, Rebecca Heald, and John Matsui, participate in a panel as part of the “Mentorship in the Life Sciences” event.

Discussions promote healthy mentoring relationships between faculty and graduate students

By Shreyas Patankar and Dax viviD

Healthy mentoring relations with faculty are one of the key indicators influencing graduate student wellbeing, and major academic journals and funding agencies are starting to recognize the value of healthy interactions between research group members to the academic enterprise as a whole. With this in mind, faculty mentorship of graduate students has been a key area of advocacy on campus for the Berkeley Graduate Assembly (GA) over the past several years. This year, the GA has partnered with the Graduate Division and Executive Vice Chancellor & Provost Paul Alivisatos to launch a series of mentorship fora on campus, starting with the Mentorship in the Life Sciences” event on March 14.

Campus community members, including graduate students and faculty, participate in “Mentorship in the Life Sciences” forum.

The mentorship fora are organized by disciplinary clusters, intended to recognize the different mentorship and research practices in different disciplines. The “Mentorship in the Life Sciences” event included faculty from departments such as Integrative Biology, Public Health, and Nutrition Science & Toxicology.

“Mentoring graduate students has some of the same challenges and rewards as raising children,” said Fiona Doyle, Vice Provost for Graduate Studies and Dean of the Graduate Division, in her opening address. “Faculty mentors are responsible for providing a sounding board for students’ research projects, guidance and support, and helping them be effective communicators, and in turn they expect to see academic and personal development on the part of their students over the course of the mentorship.” She continued, “Graduate students who have attentive, empathetic, and engaged mentors are more likely to be satisfied with their graduate studies.”

Good mentorship can be a part of the culture in a research group or laboratory. Rebecca Heald, a Professor of Molecular & Cell Biology, and one of the panelists at the event, encourages students to self-evaluate through a questionnaire (such as the Adelaide grid). Group culture is also essential to ensure that all members of the group are treated with respect, and regardless of their roles or career aspirations. However, Prof. Paul Fine of Integrative Biology and fellow panelist, noted that for faculty members, there is a trade-off between effective mentorship and financial rewards. At the campus level, impactful change to faculty mentorship practices will require acknowledgement of mentorship in faculty reviews. This is especially important for faculty members who are women or are from underrepresented backgrounds, since they take on an outsized share of the job of mentoring graduate students.

There is a whole body of research on mentorship, Assistant Dean John Matsui indicated as the last panelist. Steve Lee at UC Davis uses the concept of mentoring up, or co-constructing the mentoring relationship. There is a responsibility of both the mentor and mentee to discuss how often to meet, what works for feedback, and other important factors of a healthy professional relationship. Incorrect assumptions about how much support is needed or wanted can create tension, so communication on these topics is crucial. Graduate students should also be encouraged to connect with mentors in other organizations. Campus programs like the Graduate Diversity Program or field-specific organizations like SACNAS and ABRCMS offer underrepresented graduate students the chance to connect with additional mentors.

The discussion included several challenges that are pertinent to present-day graduate education. With the dearth of academic jobs, graduate students face uncertain career prospects, which can lead to an overall sense of despair, and affect their research productivity. A major change compared to when several current faculty were in graduate school is the unionization of postdocs and some graduate student employees. Members of the audience noted that the dual roles of graduate students as mentees and employees, and of faculty members as mentors and supervisors, may create awkward interactions.

From the perspective of a graduate student, asking for mentorship is an initial barrier, but most faculty are willing to help students who get past the first step of asking for help. In addition, graduate students and postdocs can support their research environment through mentoring their more junior colleagues. Several programs are offered on campus to support graduate students mentoring undergraduate students in structured environments and often on specific research projects, including the Student Mentoring and Research Teams (SMART) program, Getting into Graduate School (GiGS), and Berkeley Connect. As Executive Vice Chancellor & Provost Paul Alivisatos noted, graduate school is a hard journey, and it cannot be accomplished without support.

Additional mentoring fora for faculty are planned for 2018-2019 academic year. Resources for faculty on best practices in mentoring graduate students can be found on the Graduate Council’s website.

About the Authors: Shreyas Patankar is the Campus Affairs Vice President for the UC Berkeley Graduate Assembly, and a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Physics. Dax viviD received her Ph.D. from the Department of Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley.