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RCR Casebook: Mentor and Trainee Relationships

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Mentoring is a foundational component of learning how to be a scientist. Mentoring provides trainees—students, post-docs, and career development scholars—with important guidance from practiced investigators on how to conduct good research and how to build a successful career. A mentor may be a student’s thesis advisor, or could be a senior researcher who has no official advising responsibilities.13 Role modeling and leadership may play a critical role in learning the responsible conduct of research.45 Mentors who meet their obligation can impart an understanding of research regulations, institutional policies, and the general standards for the responsible conduct of research.46

Of course, the mentor-trainee relationship requires positive contributions from both parties. Trainees have responsibilities to respect mentors’ time and resources by doing the work assigned in a conscientious way; they are expected to follow research protocols and adhere to agreements regarding authorship and ownership.13

Generally problems between mentors and trainees occur when one of them is not getting what is expected from the relationship. Communication early on is required to establish standard operating procedures (data collection and interpretation), to set expectations regarding time spent in the lab or on projects, and to convey project deadlines or deliverables. Naturally, mentors have more experience, knowledge, and authority, creating an unequal distribution of power that can lead to uncomfortable or awkward situations for a new trainee. Mentors can mitigate some of the discomfort by providing written guidelines on practices that often raise questions for trainees such as authorship and publication.13 Written guidance on accepted practices and responsibilities not only addresses concerns that both mentors and trainees may have, but also alleviates tensions when starting a new partnership.

Ultimately, mentors should set the goal of producing independent investigators who will advance knowledge in their discipline and may train the next generation.13

 

The Cases and Role Play

The cases and role play in this chapter demonstrate a variety of issues that can arise among mentors and trainees. The scenarios deal with common pitfalls and how to manage or avoid them when they occur.

  • Case One: A post-doc in the final year of his fellowship has been asked by his mentor/Principal Investigator (PI) to help train his replacement, a new post-doc whose work and demeanor in the lab are objectionable.
  • Case Two: A pre-doctoral student working for a demanding PI is struggling to keep up with her responsibilities as a graduate research assistant, a doctoral student, and researcher with her own aspirations.
  • Case Three: A scientist working under a PI has problems communicating, which leads to a much larger issue regarding data integrity.
  • Role Play: A research professor is having trouble letting go of a PhD student he’s been mentoring who is not meeting standards in the lab or in the classroom despite working long hours to compensate for his shortcomings.