A UC Davis Graduate Student Blog

Tag: SharonLee

Mentoring and being mentored, the Graduate School Edition

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 www.phdcomics.com

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 www.phdcomics.com


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.

Finding Your Way: Choosing a Thesis Lab

Contributing authors (alphabetical order): Emily Cartwright, Anna Feitzinger, Keith Fraga, Hongyan Hao, Jessica Huang, Sharon Lee, Linda Ma


Congratulations, you’ve made it past the harrowing applications, nerve-wracking interviews, and awesome recruitment food! The first year in graduate school can be difficult, as you juggle coursework with organizing rotations and looking for the lab you’ll be dedicating the next 4-6 years of your life to. The question of which lab you will join is the question that you think about all the time, and rightfully so. The experience and relationships you make during your PhD are transformative. But there are many variables to consider and reaching a final decision on which lab to join can be a challenge!

All of us here at BioScope have gone through the same process, and we have some ideas that just might give first-year graduate students another perspective on deciding on a lab. In some ways, this is an advice column, but definitely not a “How to” article. We don’t know of a magic bullet that makes this decision easy. Part of the process is actually experiencing the process itself: all of the highs and lows, all of the epiphanies and backtracking, and the feeling of finally deciding. So let’s get started!

Getting through rotations!

Perhaps the first step in deciding on a lab is doing rotations. Granted, some disciplines and graduate programs do not operate on a formal rotation schedule. However, in general, there is a period of time during the first year where you will have the chance to rotate with a lab that you are interested in. The “Car Dealership Test Drive” analogy works perfectly here. What better way to experience a lab environment, the research they do, and how you work with the PI more than doing a rotation with them?

Specifically, here at UC Davis, many graduate programs provide great resources for finding faculty to rotate with. Don’t forget that you can look in other departments as well! UC Davis has diverse faculty, covering a range of fields that you will definitely find something that you’re interested in pursuing.

While shopping for a car, you can test drive as many cars as you want, which is not the case in graduate school. You can only participate in a limited number of rotations. Therefore, there can be a lot of planning and reflection that goes into who you should rotate with. There are two things we want to stress about managing rotations:

(1) Know what you want to study – or what you DON’T want to study – to a point where you can narrow down the labs you are interested in. Having the self-discipline to focus your interests is critical for decisive rotation decisions.

(2) Rotations are less about the progress you make in the short amount of time in the lab, and more about getting a feel for the lab. In the rotation, you receive a small project, and in the hopes of impressing the PI, the lab, and your peers, you devote a lot of energy to generating results. Striking gold during a rotation (such as getting results that will contribute to a manuscript) is rare, and not something to bet on. Instead, it is much more efficient to devote your attention to being in lab, experiencing the group, learning how you work with the PI, and gaining a solid grasp of the research program.

Honesty and Realism goes a long way

An important thing to remember when looking for rotation labs is to be realistic. You can’t be searching for a lab that studies microRNAs in brain development by day and cures Down syndrome by night. Even a lab with diverse projects maintains very specific and well-defined areas of interest. Having ambitious goals and ideas are great, but the key is to not pigeon-hole yourself to a point where every lab you come across doesn’t quite do everything you are excited about. Your perfect lab does not exist. You have to let your scientific interests grow and develop, and allow yourself to be mentored.

This goes to a deeper point about graduate school. It is not so much what you do, but how you do it and learning the skills to be a scientist. It is very common for individuals to work on something totally different from their thesis research after graduating. Doing a PhD helps you sharpen the tools to study a variety of problems. Getting a PhD is more about the training, and finding a lab is more about fit than it is about field.

Handling uncertainty is key

As mentioned above about rotations, knowing your interests is key to to deciding which lab to join. This is part of “Knowing yourself,” which consists of answers to questions like, “What am I interested in?”, “What type of research environment do I work best in?”, “Do I want a PI that is hands-on or hands-off?”, “What do I want to do after my PhD? And how can my thesis lab facilitate that?”, and many more. You can answer these questions by thinking back to labs you’ve worked in before and what you liked and didn’t like about them. With each rotation, you’ll be able to get a clearer idea of what your answers to these questions are.

Deciding on a thesis lab can be roughly split into concerns of two types: concerns that you can control, and concerns that are beyond your control. What we want to highlight is an appreciation of the difference between what you have control over (your attitudes, your interests, your effort) and things you cannot control or predict (how your relationship with your PI will develop, how funding will change, how experiments will go).

The major pitfall in deciding a thesis lab is being too worried about things that you cannot control. We are all concerned about choosing the “wrong” lab, becoming stuck in a situation where we need to switch advisors. In those cases, the relationship with the PI deteriorates due to a host of reasons. You cannot forecast these changes to your relationships. You do your best to address problems early on and find solutions. Appreciating the things that you can control gives you a tool in making your decision.

Things you should ask yourself

Choosing a thesis lab is a very personal process. It is about you, and you finding your way through graduate school. All of us here at BioScope arrived at our respective labs in different ways, and we pondered different concerns. However, we have recognized a few questions you should ask yourself. These are questions that you do not need the answer to right now. These are questions where your answer will change over time, maybe every 5 minutes! Nevertheless, these are some questions that are meant to get you thinking.

The Research

  • Do I love the science, and am I excited about the unanswered questions in the field?
  • Can I see myself truly enjoying reading papers in this field?
  • Am I willing to perform the literature searches necessary to fill in my gaps of knowledge?
  • Can I imagine performing the essential lab techniques on a daily basis, becoming an expert in the lab’s tools?

The Thesis Advisor

  • Can I see myself working with this PI for the next several years?
  • How comfortable do I feel communicating with the P.I.? Is it easy to have a conversation and brainstorm ideas?
  • Do I do better when the P.I. has an open door policy (questions always welcome), or can I be productive without meeting with my P.I. once a week?
  • What is the PI’s track record with other PhD students? What do other people say about the lab?
  • Is my PI supportive of my future goals?

The Environment

  • Can I have enjoyable and intellectual communications with the other students/post-docs, or do I feel like there are unpleasant interactions?
  • Do I prefer a lab that’s more social, or one where everyone goes into lab just to get the work done?

The grass on the other side is still just grass

Finally settling into a lab is a wonderful feeling; It’s like finally finding a home. And yet, we still have our difficulties. We still have our miscommunication. We still sometimes ponder if we made the right decision. It is very natural to have these questions because, like we said, there is no magic bullet, no recipe for doing this. And as scientists that strive for some degree of precision and exactness in our lives, this is hard to wrestle with. A lab is not perfect when you join. It takes dedication, patience, and communication to create a PhD training perfect for you. So keep calm, and carry on.



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