Author: Sharon Lee

Edited by: Keith Fraga


I remember the day I walked into her office for an interview.

Dr. Tama Hasson, Director of the Undergraduate Research Center-Sciences at UCLA, had been doing this for a while and knew that a sure way to comfort a nervous student was her big, encouraging smile. Before I knew it, within the next fifteen minutes of our meeting, she laid out my entire academic plan and became one of my first mentors! At that time, I only knew about my interest in research. I had just joined a lab to satisfy my growing scientific curiosity. But I didn’t know anything about graduate school.

As a first-generation college student and the only one in my family pursuing a PhD, I am grateful for the support and guidance I received through the years from my mentors! Finding good mentors has been a skill I have tried to develop over the years and I hope to share a few things I have picked up about how to be mentored.


What is mentoring and how important is it to find a good mentor?

Image credit: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

I like the definition of mentoring from the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists: mentoring is a relationship between two individuals (a mentor and a mentee) based on a mutual desire for development towards career goals and objectives.

In graduate school, the most important mentoring relationship is the one that develops between graduate students and their thesis advisor (research mentor). It is also one of the most sensitive relationship and sometimes, can be challenging to maintain.

As an undergraduate, all I focused on was the type of research I was interested in. When I was looking into labs to join, I prioritized the research topic over everything. It was not until much later that I realized finding a good faculty mentor is more important than working on a particular project. First-year graduate students tend to forget this when choosing their thesis labs.

Dr. Daniel Starr, Professor and former BMCDB Chair, agrees that a match between a graduate student and a faculty mentor is more important than the project. As scientists, we should be excited about a variety of different projects, but “the match is essential” for a successful and nourishing graduate career.

To collect some thoughts about mentoring from other faculty and students, I circulated an anonymous mentoring survey within the BMCDB graduate group. All 18 faculty who responded to the survey also agreed that good mentoring is very important for a graduate student’s training.


What is key for a successful mentoring relationship?

When asked what is key for a successful mentoring relationship, the response that I received from the majority of faculty and students was communication. Clearly communicating one’s expectations from a mentoring relationship helps to avoid any misunderstandings that may arise from unspoken assumptions about the roles and responsibilities of a mentor and mentee.

Dr. Starr, who has mentored 9 graduate students, also added that because “every student needs a different mentoring style”, mentors need to be “flexible and patient” with their students. It was encouraging to see that 94% of the BMCDB faculty surveyed were open to changing their mentoring style to meet the needs of their graduate students.

In addition to communication, Dr. Steve Lee, Graduate Diversity Officer from UC Davis Graduate Studies, believes an important factor for a successful mentoring relationship is self-awareness. Self-awareness is critical because both mentors and mentees need to recognize the way they best communicate their ideas and how they best receive feedback. A high level of self-awareness helps recognize when there is a dissonance between you and your mentor/mentee. It allows you to put aside your differences and work collaboratively to meet shared goals.

Dr. Lee suggests that regular self-assessment is a good practice for graduate students to understand where they stand. Particularly for women and students from minority backgrounds who experience higher levels of imposter syndrome, communicating with one’s mentor can be intimidating. Self-assessment can be used as a strategy to overcome imposter feelings and take actions to move forward. Dr. Lee recommends for the students to mentor up!


What is Mentoring up?

“Mentoring up is a concept that empowers mentees to be active participants in their mentoring relationships by shifting the emphasis from the mentors’ responsibilities in the mentor-mentee relationship to equal emphasis on the mentees’ contributions.

This term was conceptualized by Dr. Lee with colleagues back when he served as the Assistant Director of CLIMB. They came up with this idea to encourage students to proactively engage with their research mentors for an effective mentoring relationship.

The core principles and framework of mentoring up is described in Chapter 7: Mentoring Up”: Learning to Manage Your Mentoring Relationships, in the book, “The Mentoring Continuum – From Graduate School through Tenure”. In this chapter, the authors provide strategies for mentees to consciously contribute and guide their mentoring relationships through difficult situations, avoiding passive patterns of behaviors that may limit their own success.

I highlighted below three of the seven core principles and strategies of mentoring up that graduate students (mentees) can use to foster their mentoring relationship:

  1. Maintaining Effective Communication. It is important that mentors and mentees seek to understand each other’s communication styles and take time to practice communication skills, particularly when their preferred method of communication is different.
    • Determine your mentor’s preferred medium of communication and acknowledge if it differs from your own personal preference.
    • Schedule a regular time to meet with your mentor and prepare for the meetings by articulating specifically what you want to get out of the meeting.
    • Keep track and share progress toward project and professional goals, both verbally and in writing.
  2. Aligning Expectations. With clear expectations, mentoring relationships are more likely to be productive. Problems and disappointment often arise from misunderstandings about expectations. In order to avoid such misunderstandings, expectations should be clearly discussed and realigned on a regular basis as they may change over time.
    • Ask your mentor for his or her expectations, and also share yours, regarding your research project, role and responsibilities of being a graduate student, and your professional career goals.
    • Ask others in your lab about your mentor’s explicit and implicit expectations.
    • Write down the expectations you agree to with your mentor and revisit them often.
  3. Assessing Understanding. Determining how well you understand your mentor as well as how well your mentor understands you is not easy, but is crucial for a productive mentoring relationship. Develop strategies to critically assess each other’s understanding.
    • Take a minute to consider any assumptions you have made about what your mentor knows or does not know about how well you understand your project.
    • Ask questions when you do not understand something. If you are afraid to ask your mentor directly, start by asking other lab members and peers.
    • Explain your project to someone who is not familiar with your field and help them to understand your project and its significance.

I asked my thesis advisor once to re-explain some concepts about my research project which I did not clearly understand. I was worried that he would be unhappy about having to repeat himself. But in hindsight, I am glad that I asked my questions because my advisor was equally pleased to have clarified my confusion. He actually appreciated my initiative to clear my misunderstanding.

We students so often assume that our advisor will react negatively to our mistakes and lack of understanding, which leads us to make an even bigger mistake of not openly communicating. 75% of the students surveyed reported that despite being not extremely happy with their thesis advisors, they did not talk with them about improving their relationships.  

Image credit: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham


How to get the best of all worlds?

One of the common mistakes that graduate students make during their early years is to expect their thesis advisor to fulfil all the different roles and responsibilities of a mentor. They often need to be reminded that no one can do it all, that one mentor cannot provide all the guidance and support that a student needs. Effective mentoring is a community effort and thesis advisors should encourage and assist their students with finding other mentors with complementary skills and knowledge. Some examples of people who can make an excellent additional mentor include senior PhD students, postdocs in your lab, faculty you rotated with, and your thesis committee members. It is also a good practice to maintain your relationship with old mentors from previous institutions.  

Graduate students can also actively seek out mentors on their own. As a woman in STEM, I look for opportunities to engage with female scientists and identify women mentors. I love this quote from The Atlantic about How Women Mentors Make a Difference in Engineering: “It’s not that having a female mentor increased belonging or confidence – it just preserved it.” “They act as a “social vaccine” that protects female students against negative stereotypes and gives them a sense of belonging.”

Do remember that building an effective mentorship takes time and maintaining it takes effort. Mentorship is a work-in-progress and a long-term investment! Practice humility and be willing to adjust or compromise to achieve your mentorship goals. However, if the relationship is not working, take charge and do something about it. I greatly appreciated when Dr. Starr encouraged students to do the same. He said that “students need to know that some matches don’t work, like a large percentage of matches don’t work” and it is fine to change labs and find a new mentor who can help you be successful. “Graduate school is hard enough as is … hopefully you find a match that makes graduate school fun, hard but fun.”




  • National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN): NRMM is a nationwide consortium of biomedical professionals and institutions collaborating to provide trainees across the biomedical, behavioral, clinical and social sciences with evidence-based mentorship and professional development programming.
  • Questionnaire for Aligning Expectations in Research Mentoring Relationships: a tool to help beginning graduate students to align their expectations with their thesis advisors. Also helpful in assessing where you stand compared to other graduate students in the lab, among your cohort, and/or within the graduate group.