Dr. Martin Cohn
Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology
2018-2019 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award
When I accepted my first graduate student, only 2 years after obtaining my own Ph.D., I wasn’t ready for the responsibility of shepherding a student through graduate school. I say this because I later came to realize that my perspective on graduate students was completely backwards. I viewed my student as someone who was there to help carry out my funded research. That perspective played a role in my being a bad mentor. Of course, I provided her with good technical training, and I imparted my obsessions with scientific rigor, attention to detail, honesty and integrity, and a strong work ethic. Unfortunately, having a work-life balance was not part of my consciousness. She was incredibly productive and she published elegant papers that are still, nearly 20 years after she started graduate school, some of the most highly cited papers to have come out of my lab. She was a great student, a fine person, and a very promising young researcher. She left science as soon as she finished her Ph.D.
It took a few years of reflection, and some more experience, for me to realize that my first graduate student quit science because I, her Ph.D. “mentor”, drove her out. I was so focused on the work, and I pushed her so hard to be productive, that I didn’t give her a chance to enjoy the process, to experience the thrill of discovery, to get excited about reading and writing papers, or to take time to think and be creative. Those were the very things that made me fall in love with science. An advisor who doesn’t give their graduate student the opportunity to have those experiences might be functioning as a supervisor, but that person is not a mentor. I began to understand that my first foray into graduate mentoring had done a disservice both to that student and to my field, which would not have the opportunity to benefit from her involvement. A few years after she graduated, I wrote a letter of apology to that student, and I radically changed my approach to graduate student mentoring. Although I started out with the view that graduate students provide an opportunity to do more research, I came to realize that the research provides the opportunity to mentor graduate students.
Preparing a student for a successful career in science involves educating them about the many facets of a scientific career, not just technical training. Graduate school is not vocational school; it is about education and intellectual development. I think that most students are driven to graduate school by passion and curiosity, which leads to a desire to learn the technical and intellectual skills that will enable them to pursue their interests. Although technical skills enable graduate students to carry out their Ph.D. research (and to assist their own mentees with their projects), it is more important that graduate students learn how to learn, continuously, in order to avoid being left behind as a field advances.
I want my graduate students to know what they can expect from me, as well as what is expected of them. In order to be transparent, I provide them with a copy of my mentoring plan, which is a program that I have developed to provide training and education in several areas that I think are important for their success. I encourage them to identify and be open about deficiencies in their knowledge, rather than being embarrassed by them, so that we can work together to fill these gaps. Learning becomes easier if we allow students the freedom to be honest about what they don’t know and to view ignorance of a particular area as an opportunity to gain new expertise. When I finished graduate school and started a postdoctoral fellowship in a new lab, I thought that being an independent scientist meant that I should not have to ask others, particularly students, for help or advice in the lab. It was a mistake that inhibited my intellectual growth. When I came to the realization that the point of postdoctoral training is to learn new skills -- not just to land a good job -- and that I was not expected to know everything, it was liberating. I then benefitted from the expertise of other postdocs, graduate students, and experienced undergraduates. I try to help my mentees avoid making the same mistake. Therefore, we have no hierarchy in my lab because rank or seniority should not be mistaken for expertise. If a freshman undergraduate has mastered a new technique, then that student has something to offer to other members of the lab. I want everyone to recognize that individual’s expertise and to be comfortable approaching that person for help. I hope that my own practice of asking graduate students, postdocs, undergraduates, and other faculty members to teach me methods or techniques that they have mastered will encourage my mentees to do the same. Again, being honest about what one doesn’t know is absolutely essential to the learning process.
I value open and direct communication with my mentees, and I try to provide formal and informal opportunities for exchange of ideas. When graduate students join my lab, we meet weekly to discuss their progress, problems, ideas, questions, and needs. These meetings are intended to focus on short-term goals, to review their research progress and results, and to help them to develop their plans for the next step. Each week we review the goals for the past week, assess progress towards those goals, and establish the next set of milestones. As students get more comfortable with their projects and independence, we transition to monthly meetings (in addition to frequent informal/ad hoc discussions). The meetings are scheduled to be protected mentoring time. We also have a “career development meeting” every 12 months, in which students perform a self-assessment, receive feedback from me, discuss any obstacles to progress, provide me with feedback on the training that they are receiving or want to receive, and determine action items for the next period.
In addition to practical training in the lab, I place heavy emphasis on my mentees’ career development and their progression towards independence. To this end, I include them in the range of activities that goes into being an academic scientist. While developing their own projects, I encourage them to apply for scholarships, fellowships, and awards. This provides several training opportunities, including how to develop specific aims and hypotheses, design experiments, and respond to peer reviews. To learn how to review, I invite them to co-review manuscripts and grant applications with me. I also encourage them to identify meetings and conferences where they can present their work and develop professional relationships with others in the field. To develop mentoring skills, I use a tiered mentoring system, in which graduate students supervise undergraduate research students. The goal is for them to learn how to mentor while they still have the safety net of their own mentor, and I help them work through issues ranging from personnel management to study design. I am also very frank about the importance of mental health, which includes sharing personal experiences and encouraging them to let me know if they are struggling.
In summary, my approach to mentoring graduate students recognizes that they are students as well as colleagues. My goal is to provide graduate students with a solid foundation for continued intellectual and personal development as they progress through their careers. My role as a mentor does not end when they graduate. I remain available to my mentees for professional advice, to provide comments on papers and grant proposals, to send professional opportunities their way, and to be a sounding board for their ideas or problems. Working with smart, creative, and passionate graduate students continues to be the most rewarding part of my job.