What Novice Mentors Should Know

Everyday in medical school, I learn something new from someone who is farther down the path that I am on. And the longer that I have walked down this road, the more opportunities I have had to give back. For instance, I am currently mentoring pre-medical students from underrepresented backgrounds, and I’ll be giving talks to high school students interested in STEM about an upcoming book I helped write, What Every Science Student Should Know. As other PhD and MD candidates slowly but surely find themselves in roles of authority as teaching assistants or research mentors to undergraduates, I’ve talked with fellow student-mentors to create a short list of what novice mentors should know.


Know what your mentees don’t know: One of the hardest part of being a mentor is addressing what your mentee doesn’t know. Thankfully, the great thing about being a novice mentor is that you’re not too far removed from what your mentees are going through. Reflect back to your first lecture course or your first day in a laboratory and how overwhelming it felt. Many complex scientific concepts feel natural to us now because we’ve been exposed to it over and over again. Remember the mentors who helped you gain confidence in your abilities and what they did to help you grow. Don’t make any assumptions about what your mentee may know. Avoid professional acronyms and jargon, explain complex concepts in simple terms, and check for your mentee’s understanding by encouraging questions.


Be committed to your mentee: Eli Johnson, a former instructor for New York University’s Science and Technology Entry Program for high school students and a current medical student at Stanford University, stresses that you must make time for your mentee, “It’s very important to be present. Plenty of people find a mentor, only to be faced with yet another name attached to sparse and infrequently sent email. Don’t agree to mentor if you don’t think you make the time commitment and personal investment in another person.”

You, the graduate or medical student, have more experience being mentored and consequently have a better idea of what a good mentor ought to be. The onus is on you to help your mentee to articulate his or her goals in this relationship so that you can figure out what you can do for your mentee. For instance, if your mentee’s goal is to contribute a publishable figure to a research manuscript, you can introduce them to the relevant background information, help them to come up with a testable hypothesis, and teach them lab techniques. Moreover, you don’t need to have all of the answers; you can direct your mentee to someone who does or point out the relevant resources.


Know that mentoring is a mutual relationship: Mentorship is a symbiotic relationship between the mentor and the mentee. According to a 2009 exploratory case study published in the Journal of Science Education and Technology, “Graduate/postdoctoral mentors experienced a wide range of gains, including improved qualifications and career preparation, cognitive and socioemotional growth, improved teaching and communication skills, and greater enjoyment of their own apprenticeship experience.”

“Being a mentor reminds me why I keep striving to achieve more in life,” says Eli.  “I was once at that stage looking for answers, facing an uphill battle with no end in site. Even more gratifying, I still don’t have all the answers and my mentees remind me of this when they ask questions that I have never considered. In this way, we both grow together.”

Author: Mike Klymkowsky

I am a Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I earned a bachelors degree in biophysics from Penn State then moved to California and earned a Ph.D. from CalTech (working for a time at UCSF and the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic). I was a Muscular Dystrophy Association post-doctoral fellow at University College London and the Rockefeller University before moving to Boulder. My research has involved a number of topics, including neurotransmitter receptor structure, cytoskeletal organization and ciliary function, neural crest formation, and signaling systems in the context of the clawed frog Xenopus laevis as well as biology education research, leading to the development of the Biological Concepts Instrument (BCI), a suite of virtuallaboratory activities, and biofundamentals, a re-designed introductory molecular biology course. I have a close collaboration with Melanie Cooper (@Michigan State) that has resulted in transformed (and demonstrably effective and engaging) course materials in general and organic chemistry known as CLUE: Chemistry, Life, the Universe & Everything. I was in the first class of Pew Biomedical Scholars and am a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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