Which qualities make a great mentor? — R Voice

Which qualities make a great mentor?

Andrea Hayward
Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 943 admin
edited January 14 in Academic Careers

Since mentoring is the topic of this month here on R Voice, I'd like to get your views on a simple question. Shout-out to @Kakoli Majumder for telling us about National Mentoring Month!

The definition of a good mentor might be different for different people. Are good mentors encouraging? Are they experts in the field? Or are they kind and empathetic? Maybe a combination of these and some other qualities as well? Let's explore this!

In your opinion what kind of qualities make a great mentor? When looking for a potential mentor, if you could pick qualities in a literal sense, which ones would you ideally look for? I'd love to hear your take on this. Please note that there are no right or wrong answers here 🙂

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  • Kakoli Majumder
    Kakoli Majumder Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 328 admin

    Knowledge and experience of course are a given, but for me the qualities that define a good mentor are primarily good listening skills, empathy, and a growth mindset. Listening to the mentee and being a sounding board for them is crucial, particularly at the beginning of a mentoring relationship. It helps the mentee open up and share their problems with the mentor without the fear of being judged. The mentor-mentee relationship is one of trust and honesty, and the mentor should be able to give the comfort, understanding and empathy that the mentee needs. A growth mindset is also important - and is required for the mentee to remain motivated and work towards a goal thay may intially look difficult to them. I have been lucky to find these qualities in my mentors and have also tried my best to demonstrate these when I have mentored others. Would love to know your thoughts on this @Dahlia T , @FAROOQ RATHORE, @Shruti Turner, @leonard waks, @Praveena Ramanujam, @Isurika Sevwandi, @Shruti Turner, @Mohamed Hisham, @Omololu FAGBADEBO, @Karen Hall, @Asli Telli

  • Shruti Turner
    Shruti Turner Member Posts: 465 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Ooh, I didn't know that there was a month dedicated to mentoring! Thanks for starting the thread @Andrea Hayward and tagging me @Kakoli Majumder.

    I think, first and foremost, a mentor should actually care about you professionally and as a person. Without those things, I don't see how the other skills we'd hope for could have the impact or yield a successful relationship between mentor and mentee. (On the same score, a mentee should actually be open to the advice/guidance..but that's a different question!)

    I can't agree more with what @Kakoli Majumder has said about having a growth mindset - on both sides! We have to believe we can better ourselves and as a mentor, believe we can guide/support others to improve and change as required without going against our own values and goals etc.

    Good communication is key, I actually think a good listener is edging as the most important. By listening I am specifically referring to active listening - helping the mentee to reflect and using their own experience to help move the thought processes forward.

    I feel there are a whole host of skills that I could write a book here for you, but I shall stop with what I think are the top ones above.

  • Isurika Sevwandi
    Isurika Sevwandi Member Posts: 120 ✭✭✭✭

    Thanks a lot, @Kakoli Majumder for adding me to this thread. Although I find myself so busy these days, thought to pen some ideas here as "mentoring" plays a lot in student life, and to me, it can totally swirl one's future and can re-orient one's career direction. Mentoring has such a persuasive power if utilized properly.

    For me, mentoring is some sort of parenting for academia. It can start from spoon-feeding at difficult moments to get through and letting someone go without guidance for them to experiment and experience alone to get the best out of them while putting them vulnerable. However, in a nutshell, a good mentor should definitely provide emotional comfort firsthand, navigate your journey from the begging to the end without leaving you behind, and should ensure a safe ground for academic progress (not success).

  • Dahlia T
    Dahlia T Member Posts: 93 ✭✭✭✭

    In addition to the amazing comments left by @Andrea Hayward @Isurika Sevwandi @Shruti Turner and @Kakoli Majumder , I would add that having a mentor with similarly lived experiences is a definite PLUS!

    I am purposefully driven to water the soil to grow the seed that is already planted. 

  • Praveena Ramanujam
    Praveena Ramanujam Member Posts: 15 ✭✭

    @Kakoli Majumder thanks a lot for adding me to this thread and for sharing the fact that there is a month dedicated to mentoring :)

    I think that there are no good mentors or mentees. It just that a shared understanding of the world and similar perceptions, bring people closer, with the result that one entity tries to give his/her best and the other appreciates the same and tries his/her best to learn. I have always thought that there is a mutual connect, i.e., a mentor's wish to share his/her experiences and expertise, and the mentee's wish to accept the same (without any judgement from either party).

    What I mean is that when a mentor becomes judgmental of a mentee's personality or caliber, he/she stops giving his/her best, and when a mentee is not sure about the caliber of mentor (perhaps because of the differences in their approach to solving problems or world views), he/she would not think that anything worthwhile can be learnt from the mentor (this is all the more important when information pertaining to the entire world is available at our fingertips, thanks to Google).

    So, everything essentially boils down to acceptance.

    But when I say acceptance, I do not mean that essential components, such as dedication to teaching (see teach not train), subject-matter expertise, and real-world knowledge are not important. They are (and vitally so), but in the absence of acceptance, compassion, and patience, they do not count for much, as there is no faith (on both sides).

    Yup! the one key ingredient the world revolves around.

  • Andrea Hayward
    Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 943 admin
    edited January 19

    @Kakoli Majumder I agree with so many things you've said here. Empathy and a relationship based on trust, non-judgmental listening, and honesty tops my list too! Mutual respect is also something I value in a mentor-mentee relationship. And finally, while looking for a mentor, I tend to seek out someone who encourages me to question things and questions things with me rather than providing me with answers. I'm not sure if this would work for everyone but it definitely keeps me going :)

    I'd love to hear what @Vivien Kretz @Gayatri Ramachandran @suzanne reinhardt @Suman Mundkur @Soumi Paul @Hong Ching Goh @Kiran Kondru and @Hollie McDonnell have to say about this. In your opinion, which qualities make a great mentor?

  • Andrea Hayward
    Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 943 admin

    Great point @Dahlia T! I agree with you. It would be difficult for a mentor to offer advice and guidance on certain things if their life experiences have been vastly different from your own. Although, I suppose finding such a mentor would also be quite difficult. What do you think?

  • Andrea Hayward
    Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 943 admin

    @Isurika Sevwandi thank you for adding to this thread! I really wanted to hear about your experiences here because I know that mentorship is a big part of your role 🙂

    I love that you've mentioned a progress-oriented mentor-mentee relationship rather than a success-oriented one. I imagine that this would be very comforting and encouraging, especially for a student who is still trying to find their path.

  • Andrea Hayward
    Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 943 admin


    Hi @Praveena Ramanujam! Thank you for adding to this thread. I believe this is the first time we're speaking, so it's lovely to meet you 😊

    Your perspective is very interesting! I could really relate to what you said about a mutual connect and both parties wanting to do and give their best to make the mentor-mentee relationship work. You're right in saying that even the most competent, experienced, and accomplished mentor might not be idea if they aren't accepting of and compassionate towards their mentee.

  • Kakoli Majumder
    Kakoli Majumder Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 328 admin

    @Isurika Sevwandi I think you hit the nail on the head with your comparison of mentoring to parenting. Like parenting, the approach to mentoring also varies based on the needs of the mentee. And I completely agree that academic progress rather than success should be the goal of mentoring - I strongly believe that a growth mindset is the key to good mentoring.

    @Dahlia T You've made a valid point - we often look for field knowledge when selecting a mentor, but actually a similar journey or experience is what makes the mentoring relationship more worthwhile and enriching of both the mentor and mentee.

    @Praveena Ramanujam I agree that being non-judgmental and open to other perspectives is crucial for a mentor. A mentoring relationship is based on mutual trust and understanding, and it's important that the mentee should be comfortable sharing their problems with the mentor without feeling judged. Mentoring is essentially a nurturing activity, and therefore requires empathy, compassion, and care to be fruitful.

  • Andrea Hayward
    Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 943 admin

    @Kakoli Majumder @Praveena Ramanujam @Dahlia T @Shruti Turner @Isurika Sevwandi I came across this tweet today. I know it talks about a research advisor, but I think what Jen says also applies to a mentor. I like the question she asks - Who would you want as a mentor when you're having a bad day or going through a difficult experience?

  • Isurika Sevwandi
    Isurika Sevwandi Member Posts: 120 ✭✭✭✭

    Hey @Andrea Hayward , for me, a peer who is far ahead in the career but with similar motivation, academic background, and life experiences would definitely help me because they will be able to understand my difficulties and struggles and relate to them effortlessly. I hope it won't be an additional burden for me and I will be able to open up myself to them easily and conveniently than in front of a senior academic whom I will not feel that much comfort.

  • Shruti Turner
    Shruti Turner Member Posts: 465 ✭✭✭✭✭

    AGREED!! This is so important, not necessarily because the worst day situation is the be all and end all, but because it makes us step back to consider a fully rounded approach.

    For instance, every trait has a positive and negative to it. As an example I am living through: I have a great institution on my CV from where I gained my PhD BUT was it entirely the right department for me to launch my career in the direction I want...erm I'm not so sure?

    Another example...I am so grateful that during my PhD my supervisor was more focused on my thesis and PhD project than pumping out papers (she is like this with all of us..once we have one paper, it's about the thesis). I felt less pressure than some of my peers, BUT I felt behind when I had submitted my PhD and was looking at post-doc jobs. I felt like I wasn't competitive. I, thankfully, had a post-doc post with my supervisor and got several papers published in the months after my VIVA. So really, she does know what she's doing! We just have to look at the full picture AND trust in those with experience around us.

  • Andrea Hayward
    Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 943 admin

    Such an important point you've made @Isurika Sevwandi. Whether or not we feel comfortable opening up to someone does depend (to a large extent) on whether they will be able to relate to what we're saying and really understand where we're coming from. Someone who has been through similar experiences as us or has a similar motivation will be a much better person to relay our struggles and feelings. Thank you for adding this perspective to the conversation :)

  • Andrea Hayward
    Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 943 admin


    @Shruti Turner Interesting take! I think what I've taken away from your examples is that our perception of a good mentor probably differs based on what we value as great qualities. The same person might be perceived as both a good and bad mentor by different mentees who value different kind of support and guidance. Have I understood this correctly?

  • Shruti Turner
    Shruti Turner Member Posts: 465 ✭✭✭✭✭
    edited January 27

    Aha, you know I worry when I look back at what I have written when you say "interesting take". I can't remember what I say and wonder what craziness my past-self has expressed haha

    I think you're right about perception and what we value..but I also think that it's important to challenge our own thinking and see both sides of traits that we like/dislike. I feel we naturally see the things we value (or the lack of!) but it can be more difficult to see the other sides to those things that we don't initially think about.

    I'm not sure if that makes any more sense?

  • Azzeddine REGHAIS
    Azzeddine REGHAIS Member Posts: 18 ✭✭

    We can't talk about all the advantages that a mentor should have because this place is characterized by a lot of good behaviors and practices.

    I'll only talk about some of the qualities that define his role as a mentor. In addition to the breadth of his knowledge and knowledge of research topics and the language of his narrative of the reader in an interesting form, he must be patient, compassionate, and listening to help his students be the mentors of tomorrow.

    It must be flexible of communicating science to them.

  • Andrea Hayward
    Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 943 admin

    Lol @Shruti Turner don't worry. I mean well when I say "interesting take". I come in peace 😛

    You're right. We tend to notice things we value and like more easily than those that conflict with what we believe to be "nice" or ideal. You're definitely making sense. The Psychology student in me is in the background yelling "Halo effect! Halo effect!" 😄

  • Andrea Hayward
    Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 943 admin

    @Azzeddine REGHAIS thank you so much for adding to this post. I think this is the first time we're talking. So I want to welcome you to the R Voice Community. It's wonderful to have you here 🙂

    I really like that you've mentioned patience and flexibility. I feel like this was really missing from this thread. Patience is so important especially if a mentee's learning style is different than the mentor's or if their pace of work is different. In such cases, it's very important to have a mentor that is patient with you and allows you to do things and find you path your own way, and in your own time. Great point!

  • Praveena Ramanujam
    Praveena Ramanujam Member Posts: 15 ✭✭

    Thanks @Andrea Hayward for adding me to this thread. This is a very important question, but a very tricky one as one does not know the mentor before joining a laboratory. Students who are currently working in the laboratory rarely tell potential students about the exact conditions in the laboratory (unless they happen to be friends, in which case they are truly transparent). They are diplomatic in the extreme, so incoming students really have no idea about the laboratory environment.

    The only two parameters that students have are (1) is the principal investigator (not mentor at this stage) is doing research in their field of interest and (2) the number of publications attributed to the principal investigator (obviously). Importantly, both of these are utterly useless benchmarks.

    A mentor with multiple papers would be of no help unless he or she sits down with you to discuss your project and guides (at least theoretically) you when he/she feels that your experiments are not working. New students require a lot of help as the gap between Masters and PhD is huge. Their ideas of research might be utopian, i.e., you set up an experiment, and it works. This is simply not the case, the first few years in the laboratory are spent designing a project and creating resources; the actual experiments start somewhere in the third year.

    It is very easy for a mentor to say my student is not hardworking, nothing works for him or her. However, this is a plain case of a mentor shirking his or responsibilities. When a mentor takes on a student (if I were a mentor that is), he she would take on a student by thinking that it is his/her responsibility to guide the student in finishing his/her PhD in the time designated (I agree that extensions might happen, research has its picadilloes, but having a deadline helps in planning the project) by the organization. This would be done by providing the student with sufficient learning time and resources (workshops and conferences); simply asking the student to start on a project without teaching him/her about the basic experimental procedures, and then declaring the student to be not hardworking is criminal. Sometimes, the mistakes are so silly that no one might have thought about them. Foreshadowing is a good strategy in these cases.

    My experience in research has taught me that there are two verticals in research, theoretical (global, field related) and technical (local, individual experiment related, this includes choice of experiments to be conducted to address a single question in the big picture (or even a part of it), experimental design (including controls), and troubleshooting (very important). Theoretical knowledge can take you inside a laboratory, technical knowledge (THE GOLDEN HANDS) can help you survive it, it makes or breaks a student; it is the one aspect that ensures that your mentor and laboratory mates respect you. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that your mentor does not pit student against student. Competitiveness is good; I agree, but there is a type of competitiveness that takes you (and your competitors) to great height (I have seen this and benefitted from it), and there is another that is absolutely the pits. A good mentor would be someone who ensures that the negativity associated with competition is absent from the laboratory.

    This is especially important as a research student devotes a substantial chunk of his/her life to the laboratory, and if the atmosphere is not conducive, a student might come out after 5 years as a technician (owing to all the efforts made toward getting the technical part right to get mentor approval) as opposed to a researcher with a global worldview in his/her field of interest. There is only one word to describe this, "Waste." Waste of human intellect and capital (not to mention time), and this is a shame.

    Here comes the last point, the mentor should be a good manager of the resources (I am sorry that I am alluding to students and postdocs as resources, but that is what they are, resources that help keep the publication motor churning). Identifying the strong points of individual students in the laboratory and nurturing them by providing constructive criticism and opportunities (like collaborations or chance to participate in exchange programs or conferences) while refraining from politics is a mark of great mentor.

    Remember, the character of any organization is determined by the identity of the person sitting at the top, and in case of a laboratory, it is the principal investigator.

    Sorry for this tome, but this topic is very close to my heart.

    Thanks for providing a platform to share my thoughts

  • Andrea Hayward
    Andrea Hayward Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 943 admin

    @Praveena Ramanujam please don't apologize. R Voice is a safe space and you're always welcome to air your thoughts and opinions in as much detail as you'd like. In fact, I'm glad I tagged you and got a chance to hear your take on this. Thank you for taking the time with this ^ comment 🙂

    You're right - there's no way for a student or potential mentee to know the exact culture of a lab or the nature of the mentor/PI before entering a lab. I feel like all this while I've been speaking from a standpoint where the PI and the mentor are different people. So thank you for adding this perspective to the conversation.

    I agree with what you've said about competition among mentees and how it's up to the mentor to make sure that this is healthy competition and doesn't turn ugly. Good mentors would ensure that the results of the competition (for lack of a better phrase) doesn't determine how they treat the mentees or how much time they spend with the mentees. They shouldn't "pit student against student" - I fully agree with this. There is space for everyone to succeed in their own way one person's success shouldn't be perceived as more significant or more important than someone else's.

    I feel like you've also touched upon a lack of training in doctoral studies and the expectation for PhD students to just "figure it out". And then later tell them they did it incorrectly, even though they hadn't been assigned any structure or guidelines. You're right to say that in such cases, a good mentor wouldn't peg this on the mentee not being hardworking and would instead provide well-rounded guidance.

  • Praveena Ramanujam
    Praveena Ramanujam Member Posts: 15 ✭✭

    @Andrea Hayward you just got all my points absolutely spot-on, even though I did segue through multiple points in this piece. But, identifying such points can lay the groundwork for lessening the "intellectual wastage" that occurs by the end of a PhD.

  • Gayatri Ramachandran
    Gayatri Ramachandran Member Posts: 233 ✭✭✭

    Simply Wow!! for 2 reasons- 1. Its so extensive and indeed this topic is close to your heart; that you have spent quite some time and effort in meticulously penning every thought. 2. This testifies how immaculate, rich and deep your though processes have been in observing and discerning the experiences of a typical life science laboratory @Praveena Ramanujam and that, is awesome!!

  • Praveena Ramanujam
    Praveena Ramanujam Member Posts: 15 ✭✭

    @Gayatri Ramachandran Thanks so much :)

  • Praveena Ramanujam
    Praveena Ramanujam Member Posts: 15 ✭✭
    edited January 29

    @Shruti Turner

    I totally agree with you that every student has different requirements and that everything a positive and a negative aspect. A minor example would be that students thrive under micromanagement and prefer a structured doctoral program, whereas others seem constrained by micromanagement and need considerable leeway to try out their ideas. I have seen both, and I understand that a student with a preference for an well-structured doctoral program might not thrive that well wherein there is complete freedom; they want to know the "how," "what," and "when." These are cautious people who want their roots to be cemented before taking the plunge. And a student, with an independent leaning would hate being spoon-fed and explaining every minor deviation from the protocol/experimental strategy to the PI; he or she would want to take complete ownership of the project, and might consider any inputs or interferences with respect to the project as minor transgressions.

    About your point that you felt behind when you had submitted your PhD and were looking at post-doc jobs, and felt that you weren't competitive, but you know what, this happens to almost every PhD student, and if this does not happen before joining a post-doc lab, it definitely happens after joining the lab as post-doc is much scary than PhD; you are responsible for your own project and what happens to you (and if one is unlucky a PhD student might be in the same position, but there is always a safety net, however flimsy the safety net might be), so the degree of uncertainty is too high, i.e., it is job and yet not a job; you are are part of lab but no one is responsible for your success and/or failure; and in many cases the onus is on you to get grants; and you HAVE to publish.

    And that is why one has to have a great PhD, and when I say great PhD, I do not mean doing rocket science or familiarity with cutting-edge techniques (though these do help), a great PhD makes you good thinker, i.e., you acquire a scientific temperament and analytical skills that can cut through multiple domains; your thought process is all encompassing and not necessarily confined to your own domain (theoretically and not necessarily technically). If you can sit through a presentation (not associated with your field of research) and can come up with critical questions, you have EARNED your doctorate, period :)

    Academia is a great leveler, every one comes to the same point and every one's status in life viz a viz academia is "normalized" after some time. In Hindi, we have a phrase to explain this phenomenon, "gadha ghoda ek barabar." :)

    In such a scenario, external agents such as the environment of the lab and the mentor are game-changers. You are really lucky to have had such a good boss, who was thinking of your career growth all the while.

  • Jayashree Rajagopalan
    Jayashree Rajagopalan Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 319 admin

    This is such an engrossing, relatable, moving, and intense conversation @Andrea Hayward. To me, mentoring is a journey for both the mentor and the mentee and I see it like a service - like a way to give back, and that makes it even more important for mentors to be willing to mentor first and open up their minds to different personalities and working styles of their mentees. I see it as a service and so for me it holds great significance - for the mentor who is willingly sparing the time and effort to help someone else selflessly and for the mentee for being able to receive as much as possible in an exchange that can only be full of learning. For me being a mentor is about being uncomfortable in a good way, welcoming change, being open to a dialogue with someone who approaches things differently, being eager to open up a path where someone else will flourish and grow. I am always in awe of how selfless this is. Flexibility is key in mentoring too - depending on your mentee, you need to be willing to be the slight nudge or the bicycle training wheels that help the early cyclist find balance and eventually ride effortlessly. All of this sounds like a big ask but once a mentor and mentee have the intent to give and grow respectively, it's a nurturing exchange and one that we should foster and recognize much better in academia. I've said my piece but I find myself going back multiple times to what everyone has said in response to your post, Andrea, and it's such a rich conversation!

  • Jayashree Rajagopalan
    Jayashree Rajagopalan Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 319 admin

    @Kakoli Majumder I love how simply you captured the essence of mentoring in four key phrases: growth mindset, understanding, empathy, and willingness.

  • Jayashree Rajagopalan
    Jayashree Rajagopalan Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 319 admin

    You're right @Shruti Turner you need a mentor (and mentee, actually) who cares because if you don't you can't bring anything to the relationship. And communication is most certainly the most understated part of a mentor-mentee relationship. I wanted to add that here, non-verbal cues play a HUGE role, especially since the pandemic forced us all to go almost fully virtual. Also - about that book you could write on mentoring...when will you start working on it. I can't wait to read it. I could also be an unofficial editorial reader for you. 🙃

  • Jayashree Rajagopalan
    Jayashree Rajagopalan Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 319 admin


    @Isurika Sevwandi this is such an interesting comparison of mentoring and parenting where you got to be willing, depending on the situation to either break it down into parts or encourage independent thought and action. I agree that a mentor needs to be supportive throughout - that's a tough job but the support is what the mentee is always looking for.

  • Jayashree Rajagopalan
    Jayashree Rajagopalan Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 319 admin


    This is such a unique perspective @Dahlia T thanks for sharing it and making me see this differently. 😀 I confess I never thought about it this way but now that you mention it, having similar lived experiences will certainly help the mentor and mentee connect with each other better. Will also make it easier for the mentee to approach their mentor without worrying about whether they would really understand/get them.