Hiring, Firing, and Beyond: How to be an Effective Supervisor

At the Biophysical Society 60th Annual Meeting in Los Angeles, the Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women (CPOW) hosted a panel discussion called Hiring, Firing, and Beyond: How to be an Effective Supervisor.

The panel included Dorothy Beckett (University of Maryland), Kelly Knee (Pfizer), Prithwish Pal (Illumina), Rohit Pappu (Washington University in St. Louis), Rajini Rao (Johns Hopkins University), and Joanna Swain (Bristol-Myers Squibb). Session organizers Sudha Chakrapani (Case Western Reserve University), Gabriela Popescu (University at Buffalo), and Marina Ramirez-Alvarado (Mayo Clinic), facilitated the discussion, which is summarized below.

Panel members stressed that populating the lab with talented, creative, and hard-working trainees is critical to any PI’s success. Whether looking to hire students or postdocs, it is essential to start with a detailed and accurate description of the position. This helps you as the PI to focus on the most important characteristics of the person you are looking for; it also helps applicants to self-select. For a graduate student, highlight techniques the advanced techniques to be used; for a postdoctoral position, highlight opportunities for additional training and career development. Once you are satisfied with the description, send it to colleagues who may know good candidates, and add it to your website. Placing ads in magazines like Science and Nature generate many responses, but many will be irrelevant.

Once you have identified a few interested applicants, you are faced with the challenge of determining who will best fit in with your lab environment and culture. If you have a rotation system for students at your university, use your rotations wisely. Spend time in the first two weeks with the student talking about what question he/she should be looking to answer, rather than the everyday minutiae of the position. Let them know your working style and that of your lab members. Watch, assess, and monitor how the student fits in and adds to the lab.

If you do not have the luxury of time with a potential trainee, ask behavioral questions in your interviews. One prompt to give applicants is, “Tell me about a time you had to deliver something by a certain time and it did not go well.” Let them tell the story and keep asking questions as they talk.

Plan for candidates to spend time with both senior and junior members of the lab so that you can evaluate how they will interact with both; ask your team members for their evaluation of the candidate.

Another challenge you will face as the lab director, is to set boundaries around work schedules. It is helpful to keep in mind that productivity does not always correlate with a magic number of hours spent working in the lab, even if that’s where data are collected and knowledge discovered! Some students can be very productive with a 9-to-5 schedule; whereas others may hang in the lab constantly without accomplishing much. Put more weight on the results of their work than the number of hours they are working.

You may find that a dedicated student has difficulty with a particular task. Hopefully you can help them to overcome the difficulty. Remember that they do not have the necessary experience and may lack perspective; be patient and curious. Start by giving the student small tasks and evaluate how proficient and efficient they are in accomplishing them; this will give you an idea of the roadblock they are facing. Some students have “experiment-phobia” and talk themselves out of taking action; give them license to have things not work out right away. Others feel that they need to be perfect and spend too much time on inconsequential aspects of the work, or proceed at an exceedingly slow pace to avoid mistakes. Emphasize to them that it is okay to fail by telling stories of your own mistakes. This will help them realize that their mistakes can be fixed and are not the end of the world. Give the students a checklist of things that could have gone wrong so that they can try to figure issues out on their own before bringing you in. This will give them a greater sense of ownership over their experiments.

It is of paramount importance to make your expectations clear from the beginning and to hold people accountable to these. If a trainee becomes toxic to the environment in the lab, seek a second opinion before taking irreversible actions. Talk to a senior colleague about your concerns; make sure your expectations are reasonable and have been communicated clearly. Once you are clear that the trainee is simply a poor fit, do not wait too long to ask them to leave. Yes, it is never pleasant or easy to let people go; however, keep in mind that the price your lab pays may be a steep one.

Once you made the decision to let someone go, talk to them in private. Be pragmatic rather than placing blame, and always be civil. Give them enough time to find a new position. If you are asking a postdoc to move on before his/her contract is up, make sure that you have documentation about their behavior.

In keeping a productive and positive lab environment be mindful not to transfer your stressors onto your lab members. Instead find a peer or a senior colleague to talk these over; your stress can negatively affect both your home and your lab activities. Do not put undue pressure on lab members and avoid blaming them for all that goes wrong; such a highly demanding environment may inadvertently encourage someone to fabricate data, which is every PI’s nightmare! However, also stay away from micromanaging; this is rarely well-received and often takes away from a trainee’s time at the bench.

Whether you are hiring, firing, or managing people keep in mind that trainees join your team to learn from you, to further their skills, and to discover knowledge, while like every other person they have their own challenges to overcome, and that both their aspirations and difficulties are just as important as your own. Treat your team members as co-discoverers rather than employees and inspire them with your good will, patience, and enthusiasm.

Members of the panel and the audience alike agreed that being an effective supervisor requires skills that cannot be gained overnight. One must be patient, willing to learn from mistakes and seek council from a diverse network of colleagues, and aspire to move from managing trainees to truly leading a team.

Impostor Syndrome: The Dilemma between Who We Are and Who We Are Perceived to Be, Part Three

Marina Ramirez-Alvarado, Mayo Clinic and a member of the Biophysical Society’s Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women and Committee for Inclusion and Diversity, and Dwight P. Wynne, California State University, Fullerton, explore the problem of imposter syndrome in this three part series. Read part one and part two.

In this series we’ve explored impostor syndrome as being a result of two different types of tensions: (1) individually-defined experience vs. community-defined competence and (2) personal vs. community identity. Generally, individuals with impostor syndrome are encouraged to work through their issues on the personal level. However, in communities such as ours, in which a large number of people have these issues, it is also worth investigating potential changes that we can make at the community level.


To address the tension between experience and confidence, the most important thing we can recommend is to institute programs that stress the collective experience of failure in science. Many of us who make it this far in science are unaccustomed to failure: we assume that our failure is proof of our incompetence. We don’t know how to deal with it, and we don’t understand (or remember) that everyone else is dealing with it too. Academia is a leveled field where all of us go from being the top students to being” just one of them.” When all we see from other scientists are their successes, it’s incredibly easy to believe that we’re the only ones failing, and from there it’s a short trip to impostor syndrome (“My colleagues are so successful while I regularly have failures”).

There are a number of ways this recommendation could be implemented. For younger scientists, this could be instituted as part of a mentorship program or even a one-unit graduate course (ideally taken during the semester before qualifying exams). For older professionals, this could be instituted as a rotating workshop that could accompany scientific conferences or annual meetings of scientific societies. We have also found that even just instituting a safe space for people to talk about their scientific frustrations, allowing them to recognize that they’re not the only ones feeling this way, can positively affect how people calibrate their abilities relative to their peers.

Beyond this, we believe that it is time for the community to think more deeply how it assigns competence. We hazard a guess that most people in the community believe scientific competence to be objectively defined. After all, it’s easy to count the number of publications a person has, and it’s easy to count the number of citations those publications receive. However, authorship attribution can involve complex social interactions, junior faculty generally have a harder time publishing than established faculty do, and many papers are cited due to authors’ reputation. In our view, beyond a certain baseline, scientific competence is indirectly defined through one’s social connections within the community.

Conferences and meetings, especially, are just as much about making important scientific social connections as about disseminating scientific knowledge. Implementing programs to make it easier for graduate students or underrepresented minorities or any other group to attend a meeting is a start, but simply being there and presenting some scientific research isn’t enough. What social connections are they gaining, especially those that help tie them to the community? What informal meetings, where much of the “real work” at conferences takes place, are they participating in? Do they even know that they’re supposed to be doing these things? At some level, bridging these information gaps might be work for diversity and inclusion committees of professional societies, but we also believe this is something extremely easy to institute at even the lab level.

For the tension between personal and community identity, the most important thing we can recommend is that people stress the personal journey of science when discussing their own careers. Less scientific communication should be about our research, our papers, and our grants; more scientific communication should be about why we perform that research (even when it means repeating the same experiments day after day), what drives us to write those papers (even when it means submitting them to our eighth-choice journal), and how we aspire to grow as scientists. Especially for young scientists just testing their new scientific identities, it’s easy to believe that there’s one “ideal” identity promoted by the community and that a successful scientist must project this identity, no matter how at odds it is with the rest of us. By presenting a diversity of identities, we as a community fight that preconception and allow all of us to discover our true scientific identities.

While it’s important to stress that science is a personal journey, it’s equally important to recognize and help those who are unsure of where in the scientific community they belong. In some cases, these people are strong teachers or mentors who may not have the skills or desire for cutting-edge research, stuck in an environment that prioritizes such research. These people already have fully-developed scientific identities; their problem is figuring out how (and whether) those identities fit within the larger scientific community. For these individuals, even a little bit of peer recognition may be sufficient; not necessarily in the form of an award, but simply by knowing that others value their contributions to the community.

In other cases, these people may not be fully confident in their skills or are still trying on different scientific identities. They don’t have to be early-career researchers; they could be established researchers poking their heads into new, interesting fields. In these cases it’s vital to re-frame science as a collaboration rather than a competition. Rather than dangle “incentives” for individual performance, encourage junior lab members to become involved and excited in each other’s projects. Rather than seeing a threat from researchers moving outside of their usual domains, see a potential co-author bringing a new perspective to your field. In our view, scientific collaborations provide critical opportunities for researchers to engage each other’s personal and community identities; however, few scientists intuit how to be good collaborators and even fewer learn through anything other than frustrating experiences.  Again, this is a problem that can be addressed at multiple levels: for instance, department retreats and scientific society meetings could offer encouragement and workshops about collaboration, and PIs could assign complex tasks to teams of researchers rather than allowing junior researchers to treat particular projects as their personal fiefdoms.

Finally, there are two aspects of change that must be acknowledged, no matter how the problem of impostor syndrome is attacked at the community level. First, there will always be people who leave the community because of mismatches between community and personal identities. When someone chooses to leave the community, it should not necessarily reflect poorly on that individual, his/her mentors, or the community as a whole. However, too often people leave because the community – intentionally or unintentionally – encourages them to do so. We believe that retention programs, including those that help scientists overcome impostor syndrome, should focus on promoting a more inclusive community identity, allowing more people to find ways in which their personal identity aligns with that of the community.

Second, these recommendations—and any other programs intended to help scientists overcome impostor syndrome—need to be supported by demonstration and emulation of positive social behavior. Defining acceptable community interaction through a series of rules about what not to do is a great way to breed resentment and confusion. Instead, implementing small changes in small areas where we have outsized social influence – our labs, our committees, etc. – can produce the biggest results.

Impostor Syndrome: The Dilemma between Who We Are and Who We Are Perceived to Be, Part Two

Marina Ramirez-Alvarado, Mayo Clinic and a member of the Biophysical Society’s Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women and Committee for Inclusion and Diversity, and Dwight P. Wynne, California State University, Fullerton, explore the problem of imposter syndrome in this three part series. Read part one here.

Right now, if you think you’re suffering from impostor syndrome (or even if you aren’t), we want you to do a little exercise. Write down ten statements of the form “I am a [noun].” Each statement should reflect a part of your identity, something that is essential to who you are as a person or how you view the world around you.

Some of the statements you wrote down may reflect attributes that you cannot change about yourself; for instance, “I am a woman” or “I am an African-American” (and if you’re a straight white male like Dwight, you may not even have these statements among your list, which is a whole other topic to talk about). Other statements may reflect particular values you choose to embrace: “I am a Muslim,” “I am a Republican,” or “I am an animal lover.” Still other statements likely reflect roles that you value playing in your personal and professional lives: “I am a lab manager,” “I am a mother,” “I am a musician,” or “I am a party animal.”


Now comes the hard part: rank these statements from most central to your identity to least central. Or, if that’s too hard, just try to divide them into rough groups.

Got it? Okay, good. What was at the top of the list? Did it have anything to do with being a scientist? If not, how far down was the first science-related identity? Did you even have any statements that are related to your identity as a scientist? What about identities that conflict with your idea of what a scientist is? Where did they rank on your list?

Impostor syndrome has everything to do with identity. If you don’t see yourself as a scientist, then you’ll always feel like an impostor no matter how much success you have as one. In these instances, we have to be honest with ourselves: we’re pursuing a career as a scientist because of someone else, whether that person is a parent, friend, mentor, or even ourselves from five years ago. In some cases, we’ve lost interest in being part of our scientific community, and we’re trying to rationalize that feeling by finding reasons why we’re not good enough to be in it.

The problem is that in many cases, this lack of interest stems from an unconscious rejection by the scientific community of our personal identity. We bring all of our identities to the community, not just the scientific ones, and for better or worse, the community judges us on those parts of ourselves we show to the world.

There are two very different types of impostor pressures that accompany these judgments. In the more commonly explored case, the community judges us—openly or not—negatively based on our personal identity. Being perceived as a “real” member of the community can often be dependent on how much we prioritize our scientific identity over other aspects of our personal identity, or how well those other aspects align with the non-scientific identities of the people most central to the community. When we don’t have the same priorities or we have identities “inconsistent” with the community, we fear that every mistake we make will be marshalled as evidence confirming the community’s already negative judgment of us. Objective indicators of competence are often far less important to our self-perception as a scientist than subjective, social indicators of whether we are perceived as a “real” community member.

In the less commonly explored case, the community completely disregards our personal identity and substitutes its own idealized facsimile. In this case, we’re not worried that every little mistake will “prove” negative judgments correct; instead, we’re worried about disappointing a community that has replaced our identity with an unrealistically positive caricature. It’s the professional equivalent of being “put on a pedestal” in a relationship: we stress out about living up to someone else’s unrealistically high standards. We feel accepted by the community, but worry that the acceptance is on the community’s terms; we fear that as soon as they find out that we aren’t who they’ve defined us to be, we won’t be perceived as “real” community members anymore.

Now that you’ve explored your identity in more detail, we want you to do another little exercise. We want you to write a paragraph describing a successful scientist. What does this person do in a typical day? What skills does this person have? What experiences has this person had that signal competence or community identification? We don’t want you to focus on physical characteristics or beliefs here, but if those things are central to your conception of a “real” scientist, go ahead and add them too. Be as inclusive or exclusive as you like.

Once you’ve written your paragraph, underline everything that doesn’t match with your current identity. If you didn’t underline at least one thing, either you don’t have impostor syndrome or you have very low thresholds for success. Just about everyone with impostor syndrome will have at least one thing in that paragraph that is ridiculous or nonsensical or both.

With these ridiculous statements, we’re conflating the competence we see from others (the final, successful results) with the experience we have had (both the successes and failures).

For instance, a real cell biologist should be able to publish at least two papers per year in Cell or an equivalently prestigious journal without ever getting a paper rejected. A real electrophysiologist will get that darn electrode exactly where it needs to be on the first attempt at running the experiment. In these cases, we’re taking a baseline definition of competence – publishing papers, recording with electrodes – and ratcheting it up to eleven. Of course we don’t measure up, because no one measures up; we just don’t get to see everyone else’s mistakes. Sometimes, those ridiculous expectations are based on our own confusion about what it means to fill a particular professional role. For example, despite being in a biomedical engineering graduate program, Dwight had difficulty conceiving of himself as a “real” engineer because of his inability to correctly use manufacturing or test equipment. Other times, they come from our internalization of broken community norms. For example, Marina has never pulled an all-nighter studying, but some of her fellow chemistry students thought that only students who have pulled all-nighters before finals were “real” chemistry students. Obviously pulling an all-nighter has nothing to do with chemistry, but once the community defined competence through this experience, it became easy for everyone in the community to adopt it as part of their definition of “real.”

Go back and look at your paragraph again, but this time, try to think about who you had in mind when you wrote about each sentence. Is it a mentor? A colleague? Is the entire paragraph about one particular person? We’ve already illustrated that much of your paragraph likely is based outside of reality, but now imagine that you’re the person that inspired most of your paragraph. If everyone saw you in this light, wouldn’t you feel social pressure to live up to it? Wouldn’t you feel like an impostor if you knew that the real you could never live up to this fantasy definition?

In impostor syndrome, we worry over the ways in which our personal identity, skills, and experiences don’t necessarily match up with how we are seen by the community. Sometimes that worry manifests over confirming unrealistically negative judgments; sometimes that worry manifests over failing to live up to unrealistically positive judgments. As much as we seek out objective indicators of success, and as much as other people might point them out to us as reasons why we should feel successful, they don’t do anything to alleviate these impostor feelings. When others assess us, we are more likely to believe their negative judgments than positive ones.  We discount reasons to feel successful because they are not enough to overcome the social weight of negative judgments, or because we see them as evidence of others’ already-unrealistic positive judgments. Impersonal measures of “success” do not alleviate impostor feelings because they cannot help us calibrate how we personally believe others see us.

In this section we’ve explored in detail how the social pressures accompanying community judgments of our personal identity and experiences can lead to impostor feelings, and why objective measures of success don’t necessarily help those feelings go away. While most online resources for impostor syndrome deal with how individuals can minimize the effect of these community judgments, in the last part of our series we are going to discuss some fixes that could be implemented at the community level. After all, when a significant portion of the community identifies in some way with having impostor syndrome, it’s no longer just an individual problem, but one that must also be addressed at the community level.

Stay tuned for part three next week.

Impostor Syndrome: The Dilemma between Who We Are and Who We Are Perceived to Be

Marina Ramirez-Alvarado, Mayo Clinic and a member of the Biophysical Society’s Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women and Committee for Inclusion and Diversity, and Dwight P. Wynne, California State University, Fullerton, explore the problem of imposter syndrome in this three part series. Read part two and part three.

Impostor syndrome – a chronic inability to properly internalize our own accomplishments, leading to feelings of incompetence not supported by external evidence – is a problem facing many of us in science and academia today. While there are plenty of resources available discussing how you, as an individual, can deal with or overcome your own personal impostor syndrome, we have yet to see actions addressing impostor syndrome on a broader level, especially within the scientific community.


Impostor syndrome is comprised of two different types of perception biases. First, people with impostor syndrome devalue their own set of skills. But equally insidiously, they also tend to define unrealistic goals as the benchmark for “success.” In other words, impostor syndrome is a nasty feedback loop of insecurity and perfectionism, and dealing with one of these issues may cause the other to rear its ugly head.

In our view, however, both of these features of impostor syndrome have the same root cause:  a disconnect between who we are to ourselves and who our communities perceive us to be. When we frame it like this, impostor syndrome is not just an internal, personal struggle but one that can also affect a community.

To borrow a term from cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, the scientific community is a “community of practice.” What is meant by this is that the scientific community is a network of people who practice science, linked by both formal and informal connections, and sharing an unwritten set of rules and resources that facilitates communication and learning among its members. Within this scientific community, competence  is often determined formally by receiving favorable reviews of papers, research accomplishments, teaching and mentoring awards, or any number of other ways in which we recognize the contributions of our members. At a local level, competence can be defined informally through interactions with one’s peers in the lab – in most scientific settings, such as a research laboratory, newer members quickly learn who to go to for help with specific problems.

However, engagement with science is often a very personal experience, and the community can only define competence through those parts of our experience we choose to share. The community typically doesn’t know how long we worked on something or how many of our experiments failed or how many things about the field we don’t know or are too embarrassed to admit we forgot. But we do. Therefore, we may be perceived by the community as more competent than we evaluate ourselves to be. This disconnect becomes personal in impostor syndrome: every accomplishment is seen as validation that we’ve managed to fool the community once again into believing we are competent, rather than evidence that we truly are competent and deserve positive feedback from the community.

However, competence is not just about our ability to do the work, but also about our ability to convince others in the community that we can do the work well. This second part requires us to adopt aspects of the community identity as our own. To be a scientist is to be perceived as a scientist. This sometimes means changing the way we dress (dressing down when we are in an informal setting, dressing up when we are in a more formal one) or the hours we work (the “everyone in this lab works 80 hour weeks” mentality), adapting our plans to the way a laboratory does experiments, or revising our presentations to connect with different audiences, to name a few. But it goes further: the way we look or the way we approach the world can also be associated with aspects of the community identity.  For example, scientists who are white, male, and physically able are generally perceived to be more competent solely because they tend to look more like a “typical” member of the scientific community. If we do not fit with these visual expectations, we already begin our participation in the community at a disadvantage, and may continually have to fight uphill against a perceived lack of competence. With impostor syndrome, we magnify this tension between our personal and community identities as evidence that we’re not “real” community members. Instead of celebrating the ways in which we identify with the community, we struggle to reconcile the ways in which we don’t.

In the next part of this series, we will explore in further detail how these two dichotomies – personal experience vs. community competence and personal vs. community identities– can lead to impostor feelings that never quite go away and do us disservice.

Is the gender gap solved in liberal Sweden?

Often in the United States, other countries are held up as examples of places that have more friendly work environments for women.  Sweden is one such country.  Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, Chalmers University of Technology and a member of the Biophysical Society’s Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women, having worked in both countries, has found that Sweden’s reputation may not be all it’s cracked up to be.  Here she provides a personal look at gender bias in Sweden’s scientific community. 


Sweden is considered one of the most gender-equal countries in the world.  We have the longest paid parental leave in the world (16 months), and at least three of these months must be taken out by the dad. Sweden has free daycare, schools (including university), and afterschool programs. Swedes are very liberal in terms of household duties: men and women share a lot of responsibilities, and there are no stay-at-home moms. Based on this culture, I expected no gender problems in Swedish academia when I returned to a full professor position in Sweden after 10 years as faculty in the United States.

I was mistaken. A female researcher still encounters gender biases in Sweden. How many men have been suggestively approached by a senior colleague? How many men have gotten teaching evaluations with comments on being “hot” or on their choice of clothes? How many men have been mistaken for a secretary when they were really the chair of a meeting?

I have experienced these types of situations too many times. I once got a call from a senior male professor asking me to be on a prestigious Swedish committee. Although I was honored at first, I felt humiliated upon learning that I had been picked from a women-only list after no women were found among a separate list of top scientists. Despite my feelings I accepted, as I felt it important to serve. When I recently discussed why so few women choose our university with a senior male colleague, notably a high-up leader, told me he knew why; it was because the university had poor lighting in bathrooms for fixing make-up. I was flabbergasted. While examples like these seem incidental individually, when accumulated, they undermine the self-confidence of women in academia. If I, as a female professor, speak out, I am considered aggressive but if I am quiet, I am invisible.

The problem is not just limited to subjective anecdotes. There are numerous studies with hard scientific data revealing the presence of gender bias. Wold and Wennerås were pioneers when they showed in 1997 that women applicants had to have significantly stronger merits than men to get the same scores from the Swedish Medical Research Council (Nature, 1997, 387, 341-3). In a randomized double-blind study, two sets of identical application materials, with the only difference that half had a male name and the other half a female name, were sent out to over 100 faculty at research universities in the US and presented as a student applying for a lab manager position. Results found that the female applicants were rated significantly lower than the males in competence, hire-ability, and whether the faculty would be willing to mentor the student (PNAS, 2012; 109, 16474-9.). As other examples, an analysis of over 800 recommendation letters from US chemistry and biochemistry faculty demonstrated that more standout adjectives and ability words were used to describe male as compared to female candidates (Sex roles. 2007; 57, 509-514) and, upon large-scale international analysis of over eight million scientific papers, it was found that men predominate in the prestigious first and last author positions (PLoS One, 2013, 8, e66212).

Still, many (male) scientists in Sweden think we have solved the gender problem in Swedish academia because of the introduction of three initiatives. (a) Most Swedish granting agencies have assured that approved grants to women match the fraction of women that apply (however, studies have shown that the bold language in grant calls often restrict women from applying), (b) several universities have special grants for women (which unfortunately makes some men think women get promoted because of special treatment and not skills), and (c) we nowadays request a woman on every committee (which means women are over-committed and have less time for research than men).

However, when one combines female scientists’ personal accounts of biased incidents with numerical facts the conclusion is challenged. In the 2015 grant application cycle, only 19 % of the Swedish Research Council project grants were awarded to women, and only just above 20% of all university professors are women today (spread is 11-30% among Sweden’s 11 universities). In terms of the top four Swedish research awards, female winners during the last few decades constituted only 3, 9, 11, and 13 %, respectively, with no positive trend. In contrast to my initial naïve assumption, benefits such as paid maternity leave and free childcare, while helpful, do not solve the gender gap in academia.

To combat unconscious gender biases in academia (in Sweden and elsewhere), we must all, including university leaders and department heads, first become aware and educated on the topic. Next, we have to (1) assure that hiring and promotion processes are not biased towards men, (2) nominate more women for awards and high-rank positions, (3) include more women in leadership boards at university and funding agencies/foundations, (4) mentor and support young female faculty, (5) make sure women’s and men’s opinions have the same influence in strategic discussions, and (6) appreciate the societal value of reaching gender equality in academia.

To make Sweden’s deceptive reputation genuine, there must be action now.

Further reading:
C Seierstad, G Healy
Women’s equality in the Scandinavian academy: a distant dream?
Work, Employment & Society, 2012 26: 296-313


*The author also submitted this article to http://www.stemwomen.net

What Happened to Mentoring: Offering Solutions

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. Read parts one and two.

We’ve already addressed the often-present disconnect between mentors and mentees that can leave students wanting, and some of the factors contributing to this situation. Today, I will talk about what can be done to improve mentor-mentee relationships.


For mentors. Spend some time thinking about your mentoring style and history as well as your own mentors’ style and your history with them. Are you turning into your mentors the same way we turn into our parents? Do you like your mentoring style? Have you been in touch with your former students lately? Did you have fallouts with most of them and afterwards generally avoid each other at meetings? Would you join your laboratory as a student? Would you recommend yourself as a mentor to yourself as a student?

This may sound sappy but here it is: are you happy when mentoring? Are your students happy when they work with you?

Have you asked yourself why do you train students? What do you gain? What do you offer them?

For institutions. Training students should be considered a privilege and not a right. Professors should be evaluated in their role as mentors in anonymized exit interviews from graduating students. Institutions should offer continuous education options and mentoring for all faculty members that may present them with areas of improvement in their mentoring style as has been published about recently (Acad Med. 2014 May;89(5):774-82).

When a mentor/mentee relationship is established, every student and advisor should write together the expectations from both sides as a requirement to initiate research in that laboratory. Thesis advisory committees should discuss mentoring issues separately with each the mentor and mentee, to avoid conflicts of interest.

For students. Students can also contribute to reverse the rate of poor advisor/mentee matches. Senior students must be open and talk about the issues troubling them with junior students; they will make students aware of things that junior students should know so that they will be better prepared. Student support groups provide a safe environment to share and troubleshoot with peers. There is increasing evidence that these support groups can make a difference for many students by helping them avoid isolation.

Mentoring in academia is a tradition that is as individualized as each of us and simultaneously as general as the advancement of science and knowledge. Successful mentoring for all students is an undertaking that will take time and effort from everyone involved. The need is great and we should all rise to the challenge.

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


Interested in becoming a mentor or mentee? Biophysical Society has partnered with the National Research Mentor Network [NRMN], an organization that matches mentors with mentees across the biomedical, behavioral, clinical, and social sciences.

Visit NRMNet to learn more and access FREE virtual mentorship, grantwriting coaching groups, mentorship training and more professional development programs and resources through the National Research Mentor Network, funded by the NIH.


What Happened to Mentoring: A Disconnect between Students and Advisors

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. 

Last week, I wrote about a disconnect between mentors and mentees that often leaves students in the cold. This week, we delve into what creates this disconnect.

Lack of communication between advisors and their mentees. The lack of communication between advisors and mentees plays a role in the problems within the swim or sink approach. In this model of training to become a scientist, you have to follow unstated secret steps to “guess” what your advisor wants because he/she is not talking to you and telling you exactly what is expected of you. In some cases, the lack of clarity about expectations happened throughout the PhD training; in others, it got lost along the way over the years. Sometimes, it just took one disagreement and the student went from being on the “good guy list” to the “evil/dumb list.”


Differences in the way students are treated in public and in private. In this scenario, there is a disconnect between what the advisors do and say in public, during committee meetings and public seminars and what they do and say in the privacy of their offices or the laboratory. The students get a mixed message from the advisor that is very confusing and totally draining. Which message to trust? The one shared in public or in private? The positive or the negative one? For the advisor, it only takes seconds to convey a mixed message; for the student, it takes months, sometimes years to figure out what to believe, what to trust and what to do.

Advisors acquire tremendous power and control over their students. They learn what makes their students tick and use it to their full advantage. In the process, it is not uncommon that the training of the student, as well as their personal and scientific growth are not a priority.

Should I stay or should I go? dilemma. When communication between student and advisor is broken, the student receives mixed messages and the student’s training has been compromised, the student may find him/herself stuck with a project, an advisor, and a thesis project they are no longer fulfilled by. The possibility of leaving this laboratory to start again would mean getting farther behind in the training, so many students in this situation decide to stay. As a student, you are at a disadvantage by pursuing either option.

Student isolation. Many of these students are isolated and feel that they are the only ones suffering this weird treatment. No one around them is talking about these problems, so they do not feel as though they can—or should need to—reach out to anyone. Some students feel ashamed and don’t talk to anyone because they believe it would just make themselves more vulnerable to more abuse and mistreatment. What they don’t realize is that by talking to other students and in some cases, other faculty members supportive of their cause, they will begin to solve these complex issues. The simple fact that other students have similar problems and that there are faculty and students that care about them can make a difference in the life of a graduate student in trouble.

A culture of silence and lack of accountability. Students usually do not report mistreatment from their advisors, even in extreme cases where the mistreatment would qualify as harassment or abuse. They do not report because they fear retribution from the mentors, who will play a huge role in their ability to graduate and their scientific lives for years to come. They don’t report it because the graduate school education system in the US does not hold advisors accountable for bad mentoring. A future national mentoring evaluation system would allow institutions to have guidelines for best practices and accountability measures.

First year graduate students join laboratories and senior students do not feel comfortable warning them about the issues associated with their discontent. This perpetuates the trend of popular laboratories having lots of students despite bad mentoring. First year graduate students sometimes choose an advisor by following the example of other students who are doing their theses in that laboratory. What they do not realize is that each student is a unique individual and a perfect student-advisor match does not mean another student will find success with the same advisor.

Graduate students need to know that a very successful laboratory with lots of funding does not guarantee a successful PhD experience for every student.

Next time: What can be done to address these issues?


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