Mentorship and supervision of early stage researchers and post-doctoral investigators
A mentor is someone who places a special effort in helping another develop into a competent and successful professional.
Research training is typically a complex, long-term developmental process. Under the supervision of experienced researchers, trainees gradually progress from initially undertaking task-oriented activities to becoming independent investigators with increasing competence in all aspects of the scientific process. This support, under the form of mentoring, can dramatically reduce the learning curve for someone new to a field or a profession. Mentoring is influential for one's early career in establishing competence in the many roles to be fulfilled, but also in future development. Mentoring is recognised as the social foundation of research.
Mentortrainee relationships are based on the establishment of a working relationship between an experienced and a less experienced researcher. Each brings to varying levels something in the relationship. The experienced researcher will have knowledge and skills that the inexperienced researcher wishes to learn and might provide financial support for the trainee’s research, education and livelihood. On the other hand, inexperienced researchers at various stages of development, i.e. undergraduate or doctoral students, post-docs, research staff, or junior researchers, provide fresh mind-sets and of course, labour.
While the role of a mentor is theoretically different from that of a supervisor or adviser, these formal academic roles frequently develop into a mentoring relationship. A mentor is in fact, at the same time an adviser, teacher, role model, and an advocate of the trainee when necessary.
The goal of these guidelines is not to indicate an ideal path to mentorship or to suggest specific techniques or approaches. There are in fact, many dependable sources that can be drawn upon for specific advice (Lee et al., 2017; Pain, 2012). Furthermore, while it is acknowledged that each mentor will have their own strengths and weaknesses, style and inclinations, the OSR assumes that each one will act with a strong sense of responsibility and commitment to the future of the trainee. The aim of the present guidelines on mentorship is rather to provide an outline of what is expected of a mentor with respect to RCR, and what should be avoided. Of relevance are the results of a recent study (Bouter et al.) finding that even more than outright fraud (which remains a very rare occurrence), inadequate mentoring of junior co-workers appears to be one of the most negatively impactful misbehaviours in science. Other studies have reported (Anderson, 1996) that RM occurs more often in those departments in which the climate favours fierce competition and discourages collaboration and openness, and least often where students feel that their mentors, or others, provide useful feedback and evaluation. In conclusion, there is good reason to endorse the view that the risk of RM is diminished in environments in which good mentoring is provided.
OSR commits to recognising good mentorship practices by making an effort to include them in internal promotion and external recruiting decisions.
It might be useful here to remind ourselves that Doctoral students and Post-Doctoral Investigators who of course significantly contribute to the advancement their groups’ research, are nevertheless persons-in-training. They should undergo personal development planning with their mentors and mentors should not shy away from discussing exit strategies. However much one wants a trainee to work on a specific project and with a high level of commitment, sometimes a mentor should honestly and unselfishly recognise that not everybody wants to be a group leader, and some have skills that would make them better suited to other occupations. Therefore, trainees should be helped in making decisions about alternative career directions early enough in their research training. Preferably, a doctoral trainee should have the opportunity to discuss their studies with a third party – someone other than their direct supervisor - to obtain independent support.
Ideally, a mentor should have the following features
- Experience with the sort of challenges and life-work balance issues that are typically faced by a trainee
- Ability to communicate their experience
and effective mentors should:
- Inspire trainees in their current work
- Provide assistance in understanding and adhering to the standards of conduct
- Teach responsible conduct explicitly and by example
- Provide advice on working in teams and leadership
- Socialise trainees in the political, ethical, economic, and social dynamics of scientific endeavour
- Inform about administration, planning, and budget management
- Address special circumstances related to gender, race, national origin, language, or disability
- Teach about teaching and mentoring
- Be appreciative and somewhat tolerant of individual differences in style and approach, within of course the tenets of RCR
- Treat as equally and as fairly as possible each trainee. Especially considering that some projects may have higher priorities than others for the mentor
- Assist trainees with the job market
It is appreciated that junior group leaders, due to less experience may have yet to develop their supervising and mentoring skills. OSR commits to exploring the possibility to provide newly promoted/recruited junior group leaders with laboratory management training and to exploring the establishment of a co-mentorship programme to assist both the trainee and the group leader in developing appropriate skillsets.
As mentioned above, one crucial responsibility of a mentor is to guide the trainee in understanding and adhering to the codes of conduct within their profession. Within a small research group, this can occur through example, counsel, and open discussion. On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that some research teams are simply too large and/or the environment too competitive for this to occur with acceptable success.
At the very least, a good mentor should ensure that their trainee gets the maximum appropriate credit for any joint publications, encourage them to attend national or international conferences, workshops, and symposia and to present research at such events, promote their work among colleagues, and help them create professional networks and ultimately, develop an independent career.
The current thinking however, is that RCR is not discussed frequently enough and that teaching the traditions and standards of science is mostly by unwitting and serendipitous example. OSR agrees with the view that clear and open discussion of ethical principles, and with inclusion of all investigators, is necessary. Indeed, the principles of decision-making are often open to interpretation, and many important responsibilities of scientists (e.g. peer-review or initiating collaborations) are not witnessed and/or experienced early enough by trainees.
The OSR RIO, in collaboration with the scientific staff, provides RCR training for ESRs and Post-Doctoral investigators but acknowledges that there is no substitute for responsible, quality mentorship. Indeed, proper supervision and oversight play an important role in quality control. Trainees can make mistakes or may inappropriately compromise data integrity either due to lack of training or and inexperience or maliciously. A mentor, especially if also the supervisor, should therefore carefully review work done under their supervision to assure that it is well done and accurate. This monitoring activity should include (but is not limited to):
- reviewing laboratory notebooks and other compilations of data;
- reading any written output prepared by trainees carefully to assure that they are accurate, well-reasoned, and give proper credit to others;
- meeting with trainees on a regular basis to keep in touch with the work they are doing;
- encouraging trainees to present and discuss data at laboratory meetings;
- avoid as much as possible discrimination among trainees based on the mentors’ degree of interest for their projects.
It is accepted that some of this responsibility can be delegated to trusted collaborators. For instance, postdocs often supervise graduate students and laboratory technicians might teach specific laboratory skills, but the mentor, especially if also the supervisor, must assume ultimate responsibility.
Mentors should always be conscious of the fact that the mentor-trainee relationship features an extraordinary imbalance of power. Mentors have more knowledge, experience, and status, and might hold formal authority over the trainee. A trainee has obviously much to gain from this, but the fear of compromising this support amplifies the imbalance and dependency. International trainees are especially vulnerable to this power disparity.
Mentors should never profit from this power to manipulate or take advantage of the trainee, whether wittingly or unwittingly. Examples of this range from the failure or refusal to give proper credit for the trainee's contributions to a project, to outright seeking personal or even sexual favours (Obviously, such behaviour would also present criminal implications that are beyond the scope of this document). A mentor may also abuse of their power by withholding it and thus abdicating from their duties to serve as champion, sponsor, or advocate.
In conclusion, the guiding principle should be the interest of the trainee. OSR stresses the importance for mentors to schedule regular meetings with trainees, to openly discuss issues of authorship and intellectual property (further on this below), and to fairly address grievances.
Additional issues can arise from the mentor’s financial and career interests vs. their responsibilities to their trainees. For instance, in the case of industry-funded research, there may be a provision to delay publication of results for a significant time period. A mentor should consider the consequences for any trainee involved in such research and above all be transparent with them and openly discuss possible impacts on the trainee's career progression. This particular scenario is especially problematic when the mentorship and supervision coincide.