Mentoring practices predictive of doctoral student outcomes in a biological sciences cohort

Reena Debray, Emily A. Dewald-Wang, Katherine K. Ennis

Preprint posted on 25 September 2023

Diversity: the next frontier. These are the challenges of the STEM field. Its mission: to tackle global problems; to seek out new answers and new questions; to boldly go into a future where all voices are heard!

Selected by Reinier Prosee, Girish Kale, preLights peer support


Diversity in STEM fields is not merely a matter of morality, but fulfils an important societal role. Having a diverse background allows a diversification of thought processes, leading to a variety of approaches to solve an(y) important problem. Additionally, our upbringing also has the potential to influence our perception of which problems are important: another reason a diverse workforce is beneficial, as that brings forth a variety in motivations. In this context, a lack of diversity in STEM fields is a hurdle towards frontier research.

The importance of proper mentorship within STEM is something that’s increasingly being acknowledged, especially when thinking of ways to retain diverse talent. At preLights, we’ve recently covered a preprint surveying mentorship experiences by graduate and postdoctoral researchers, one that highlighted structural mentorship barriers in postdoctoral training, and a preprint describing the format of a workshop aimed at improving mentoring practices for underrepresented minority scholars. The latter is specifically relevant to the preprint we’ll discuss here.

In this preprint, the authors seek to explore an important question: why does the diversity reduce as we climb the academic ladder? Among the numerous potential reasons, the preprint authors – researchers working at the University of California, Berkeley, USA – focused on potential biases in mentoring practices, which are linked to things like diversity, well-being, and productivity. Doctoral students enrolled in different biological science programs were sent a survey focusing on advisor-student empathy, feedback, one-on-one meetings, and informal mentoring’s compensatory potential. Their main findings are summarised below.

Key Findings

Graduate Student Mentoring – two sides of one coin:

1)  Areas of concern:

  • Some students expressed worries about whether their advisors could handle criticism and deal with lab conflicts.
  • Only around half of the grad students in their final year felt sufficiently prepared for jobs outside of academia.
  • Some students, especially those from minority backgrounds, didn’t feel included or felt like they didn’t get as much support.
  • Female and non-binary students, older students, and those who didn’t follow the usual academic path said they had less support.
  • Things got even more difficult when students had more than one marginalizing characteristics.

2)  Predictors of success

2.1) Structure & Support:
  • Meetings with a mentor helps students understand what’s expected, get more support, and be better prepared for life after grad school.
  • The frequency of mentor-mentee meetings often depends on how meetings are set up and how big the lab is. Either very small labs or large labs tend to have fewer meetings.
  • Meeting frequency and structure are particularly important for students from minority backgrounds.
2.2) Representation and Traits of the Mentor:
  • Empathetic advisors and those providing constructive feedback positively influenced various outcomes measured in this study.
  • Students who identified with an underrepresented demographic, but who felt represented by their advisors reported higher levels of support, empathy, understanding, and belonging. Also, they felt more prepared for both academic and non-academic careers.
  • Students who don’t share demographic identities with their advisors, but rated them highly on empathy, had similar outcomes as detailed in the point above. This implies that non-minority advisors can be effective mentors to students from minority backgrounds if they are open to learning about the experiences of their mentee.
2.3) Community Support and Informal Mentorship:
  • Students reported receiving high levels of support from peers on research, career, and personal issues. The faculty didn’t provide as much support, especially when it came to personal issues.
  • Being part of specific research organizations and connecting with people from different academic fields made students feel more supported and like they belonged.
  • When other people in the department helped and mentored students, it made things better for those students, especially if they didn’t have a great relationship with their dissertation advisor.

Why we highlight this preprint

We recently launched an initiative as part of preLights – preLights peer support – with the intention to strengthen our community by encouraging informal, peer mentoring. With that in mind, it was particularly encouraging to read that – in this study – students report that external informal mentorship could mitigate several shortcomings associated with lack of support from the primary mentor. Additionally, being part of interdisciplinary groups enhanced their sense of support and value.

More generally speaking, we like how this work emphasises the potential of effective graduate student mentorship in helping to diversify biology. Important lessons can be learned from this preprint, such as the need and the impact of empathy and openness in enhancing inclusivity. We hope that this preprint (and potentially the preLight) will serve as a resource for both (prospective) mentors and mentees. In any case, we plan to use the insights provided by the preprint authors to further shape our own mentoring initiatives within preLights.

Questions to the authors:

1) Your observation of poor mentorship in smaller labs is rather intriguing. Poor mentorship in larger labs would somehow make sense (although not justified), as the primary mentor will have to distribute their time and energy over more lab members. We can envision at least 2 reasons for PIs from small labs being poorer mentors; one, in the case that the lab is new, the young PI might need to spend a lot of time on securing funding for the future, or might not be sufficiently experienced with the necessities of their mentorship duties; two, the lab is too old, about to be closed, and the PI is not too interested in well-being of the students anymore. Both of these would point to systemic issues with the way STEM fields operate at the moment. In your opinion, how much weight do these factors carry? Which other considerations would you include based on your experience and data analysis, and how would you test them?

2) Lack of diversity at the top of the academic hierarchy seems to be pervasive across the STEM field. What is your opinion about the intensity/severity of this problem in different branches of academia? Would you consider that the design of your questionnaire is sufficiently non-specific to be applicable in other fields?

Tags: challenges, community, diversity, mentoring, practices, stem

Posted on: 13 October 2023


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Author's response

Reena Debray shared

  1. I think both scenarios are possible, though it is difficult to say which is more common or impactful. I can imagine a few more possibilities as well. New PIs (with small labs) have less experience with mentoring and may make some mistakes that they eventually learn from. Late-stage PIs have more experience and connections, but since it has been so long since they were students, their perspectives and experiences may not match those of students today. Disentangling all these factors would likely require more detailed qualitative data than were available to us in this study.
  2. Some research has been done to directly compare graduate experiences across fields – for a great example, see Noy & Ray’s 2012 paper in The Journal of Higher Education. I think what those tell us is that the advisor-student relationship varies quite a bit across disciplines, as different things are expected of the advisor role in different fields. For example, biology and chemistry students typically work on an aspect of their PI’s research program and require physical resources to do so, while in the humanities, students work more independently and the advising centers mainly on the student’s research project.

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