I started mentoring my first student, Nick, around this time last year. Nick was with us for the academic year, working around ~15 hours a week. We had a lot to do—setting up the equipment, developing analysis scripts, catching up on the literature, etc. Since this was a multidisciplinary collaboration, we had to schedule meetings, book rooms, set up shared accounts, etc. Additionally, as an industry-sponsored project, we had to frequently write progress reports and create presentations and posters for the project.
As these requests came up, often without much lead time, my PI would send them Nick’s way, copying me, and I’d chime in with some specifics on how to get them done. Nick and I ended up in bureaucratic cycles of drafts and revisions between me and him, revisions with me and my PI, revisions with me and him again, etc. This process was slow, but it produced satisfactory results—and I didn’t think too much of it. Around the same time, I realized the project was moving slower than I expected. While Nick had a very, very productive year, we definitely shared moments of frustration over the rate of project progress. I chalked it up to an ambitious project with a demanding industrial sponsor.
It wasn’t until I began mentoring two new undergraduate students this summer that I realized I had it completely backwards.
Students came to our lab to learn science, often with the intent of evaluating their interest and aptitude for graduate school. A very real part of doing science is the “meta-science” activities like purchasing, scheduling, writing reports, emailing support staff, fixing small bugs, etc—but these tasks are a part of any job and are not unique to graduate school. Evaluating one’s interest and aptitude for graduate school requires doing what’s unique to graduate school—research. Additionally, I have found inordinate value in having a margin to think more deeply about my work and pursue research tangents, and in my own experience, I develop a margin when my to-do list is small and I can simply focus on the science.
Certainly, every experience is a learning opportunity, but the value of different learning opportunities—scheduling a meeting vs trying a new characterization technique—is different. Less trivially, writing sponsor reports and other “meta-science” activities can be valuable learning opportunities, but arguably less valuable than conducting research. Additionally, I can do these routine administrative tasks faster than they can, by virtue of having more time to dedicate to the project and by simply knowing “the system” longer. Lastly, by writing reports, etc myself, I remove a layer of bureaucratic overhead between my PI and the content creator. So by handling most adminstrative tasks myself, students “get what they came for”, and the project progresses more efficiently.
The most obvious exception is presenting results to the team. Effective communication is as central to science as generating results. Fortunately, our project has biweekly meetings with professors, representatives from our sponsoring companies, etc, which provides a great venue for “high-stakes”, polished presenting.
I made it my mission to take care of most of the “little things” for the students I mentored, so they have the headspace to focus on their projects free from distraction. I asked my PI to route any requests for them to me, and I started thinking twice before asking them to do something routine.
This summer was incredibly productive—our project progressed well above my expectations. While all of the students I have mentored were excellent and would have succeeded regardless of my role, I like to think that this shift in my mentoring style at least helped.