What Happened to Mentoring: My Views on Why It Is Sometimes Lacking

Marina Ramirez-Alvarado, Mayo Clinic, and a member of the Biophysical Society’s Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women, considers the state of mentoring in academia in this three part series.

We have all heard the horror stories, the juicy gossip shared over coffee or beer. “The mentor from hell,” “nightmare on PhD street,” “Angel in public, evil in private”… Little did I know that these stories were occurring constantly, in subtle, grayscale ways around me and causing anguish, attrition, discouragement, depression, loss of confidence, and loss of scientific human power in academia.

The word Mentor in magazine letters on a notice board

Let me start by saying that I have had great mentors throughout my academic career. None of them were perfect. We had our bad moments, but overall, my experience with them was very positive. One of my mentors lived in a different city and I only saw him one day per week, but he had set up a co-mentor for my undergraduate thesis who helped me with day-to-day issues. When I saw him, we had great conversations and he left me recharged and ready to go for the next week. Another mentor is probably one of the brightest minds in my country of origin; he allowed me to grow on my own and provided a great environment for discussion. I have never had group meetings like the ones he organized. I had a mentor who is a genius and a caring individual that taught me how to write, how to plan successful projects, and to move science forward. He also offered his help and flexibility in times of personal need. Another mentor gave me the freedom and the resources to help me become an independent scientist and showed me her way of juggling a personal life with a scientific one.

As an assistant professor, I was eager to start interacting with students, to train them, and mentor them to become better scientists than me. I got involved in as many student-related activities as I could. I joined thesis committees, I welcomed undergraduate and graduate students into my laboratory, and I taught classes. The students got to know me as an accessible, friendly professor. Let me get this straight, I am not perfect… I have had my share of bad matches with students and personnel in my laboratory. I am not the best mentor for every student. My approach when things don’t go well is to put it out on the table, talk about it, and avoid the blame game (towards the student or myself) and to learn from every experience and move on.

And that brings me to what started happening next. The graduate students from other laboratories who knew me from classes, lectures, thesis committees, word-of-mouth, etc. started coming to my office, confused, in tears, discouraged, with their self-confidence in tatters… Some of these students had started doubting every decision they were making, feeling very confused because their advisors were not supporting their efforts. They were treating these students as the worst scientists around and they were threatening them that they were never going to graduate because they were dumb. Students that normally work 12-16 hours per day were labeled as lazy when they stayed home because of a car/home repair issue or an illness. Students’ ability to perform experiments were questioned when results did not fit a mentor’s hypothesis. The students describe 180 degree changes in the attitude from the mentors that kept happening… one moment, the mentor was ‘nice and supportive,’ the other moment, the mentor was critical, cruel, mean, sometimes abusive. Some students reported receiving subtle threats, passive aggressive threats, and then straight-in-your-face threats.

Involvement in a national program focused on mentoring made me realize this these first hand stories were more than personal accounts, they were part of a national phenomenon.

I started asking myself “Why are advisors behaving this way with their students?” I realized very quickly that many of my colleagues had been “raised” in a sink-or-swim atmosphere, where they were left to their own devices. They were subjected to constant humiliation as a way to “build character” and “grow up” academically, their self-confidence attacked and their commitment to research questioned the first time they worked at a less-than-frenetic pace. I saw that my colleagues were simply “raising” their students the way they had been mentored, because in many cases, they did not know a different way.

There is a perception that to be successful you have to be utterly miserable, overworked, abused, and constantly doubting yourself. Well, let me tell you. That is not true. I live in a very different world where successful scientists care for their students and help them thrive. You do not compromise the quality of the science by treating your students in a kind way. The sink or swim system may work for certain people, but clearly does not work for all.

Over the next weeks, I will delve deeper into this issue, looking at what the disconnect is between mentors and mentees and how the problem can be solved.

Stay tuned for: What creates the disconnect between mentors and mentees?


The author wishes to thank Dr. Estefanía Mondragón and Prof. Gabriela Popescu for their helpful suggestions on this blog series.


One thought on “What Happened to Mentoring: My Views on Why It Is Sometimes Lacking

  1. The fact that this is still a pertinent issue is a disservice to the development of the next generation of scientists. Further, consulting people who still observe, practice and/or ignore this mentoring method is the reason this relationship dysfunction keeps being perpetuated. It’s something that needs to be immediately addressed. Intervention of this abusive treatment is unavoidable as it is an absolute disregard of human dignity in a field that is invested in furthering understanding of biological processes in order to ultimately improve the quality of our lives. It is required to be ended before it destroys the institution of science.

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