ORI Introduction to RCR: Chapter 7. Mentor and Trainee Responsibilities
Mentor-trainee relationships begin when an experienced and an inexperienced researcher agree to work together. Each brings something to the table under such an arrangement. The experienced researcher has knowledge and skills that the inexperienced researcher needs to learn. She or he may also provide support for the trainee’s research and education. Inexperienced researchers, whether graduate student, postdoctoral student (postdoc), research staff, or junior researcher, provide labor and fresh ideas. Under a productive relationship, the two work together to advance knowledge and put ideas to work. When the relationship breaks down, it is often because one of the parties is not getting from the relationship what she or he expected.
One way to avoid problems is to establish basic understandings about important issues early in the relationship. Trainees need to know:
- how much time they will be expected to spend on their mentor’s research;
- the criteria that will be used for judging performance and form the basis of letters of recommendation;
- how responsibilities are shared or divided in the research setting;
- standard operating procedures, such as the way data are recorded and interpreted; and, most importantly,
- how credit is assigned, that is, how authorship and ownership are established.
Clarifying these issues early in a mentor-trainee relationship can prevent problems from arising later.
The need for early understanding is not one sided. Mentors need to know that a trainee will:
- do assigned work in a conscientious way,
- respect the authority of others working in the research setting,
- follow research regulations and research protocols, and
- live by agreements established for authorship and ownership.
Mentors invest time and resources in trainees. Trainees should respect this time and use resources responsibly, keeping their mentors informed about changing research interests or other circumstances that could affect their work.
Arriving at basic understandings early in a mentor-trainee relationship is not easy, given the unequal power relationship between them. Mentors are in a position to lay out expectations, but it can be difficult for a trainee to raise questions early in a relationship about credit and authorship practices. To avoid putting trainees in the awkward position of having to raise these issues, mentors should be prepared to take the lead in raising issues that are of concern to the trainee as well as those that are of interest to the mentor. Developing written guidance on a laboratory’s authorship and publication practices should also be considered.