If you’ve ever attempted to find a research mentor, you know how daunting it can be. Without existing research mentors who can vouch for your work ethic, breaking into the research world can be challenging. So, once you’ve found a research mentor, it can be even more overwhelming to think about how to develop that relationship. Whether you’re in high school, college, graduate school, or beyond, developing and sustaining mentor-mentee relationships may be the last thing on your mind as you try to navigate time-intensive coursework. Creating a structured way of approaching your mentor-mentee relationship can be a useful way to transform it into something much less overwhelming.
Here a few strategies for how to actively develop your mentor-mentee relationships.
Be respectful, kind, and gracious
I think this is the most important aspect of being a mentee, let alone a human! Your mentor has graciously volunteered their time to teach you, so it’s important to recognize that opportunity and to thank them. Being respectful means showing up to meetings on time, communicating professionally both in-person and over email, and acknowledging the opportunity they have provided you. I have started/ended many emails to mentors with something to the tune of: “Thank you so much for the opportunity to work with you on this research project.”
The timing of how often you communicate with your mentor will vary throughout your relationship. If you’re actively working on a project and preparing to submit a manuscript for publication, your meetings may be more frequent. A good rule of thumb is to ask your mentor how often they’d like to meet. Some mentors may schedule a recurring meeting while others will leave it up to you to reach out. Either way, ensure you know upfront what they prefer. While it’s easy to schedule meetings with mentors when you have something pressing that you need to discuss, it may seem more challenging to know what to talk about when you aren’t currently working on a project. Both situations are still appropriate to schedule a time to meet with your mentor. If you’re in the latter situation, you may consider reaching out to your mentor and using the meeting time to discuss your career aspirations and ask for their advice and guidance on specific career-related questions. Additionally, you could use a meeting like that to propose new research ideas.
Come prepared to meetings
This ties into my first piece of advice, because coming prepared to the meetings with your mentor demonstrates not only that you are eager to work with them but also that you respect their time. I’ve found it most helpful (and I’ve received positive feedback from mentors) that sending an agenda (even if it’s brief) the night before the meeting can be very helpful. Sending an agenda not only helps you stay on track during your meeting, but it also demonstrates the work you did to prepare for the meeting, showcases your organizational skills, and signals respect for your mentor's time.
The email might read something like this:
“Good afternoon Dr. X, I hope you are well. I look forward to our research meeting tomorrow morning at 8AM to discuss our project on X. To help guide our conversation, I have included a brief agenda below. Please let me know if I can make any additions. Thank you so much for the opportunity to work with you on this research project.
- Agenda - Research Meeting 11/22 @ 8AM
- Discuss updates to manuscript
- Review timeline and next steps for submission to journal
- Schedule next research meeting
Ask for advice
It can feel like you need to know everything when conducting research and especially when meeting with your research mentor. That pressure can be overwhelming and can prevent you from actually learning. Mentors (good ones at least!) know that you don’t have all the answers. They want to see that you work hard, can execute on your ideas, and can think creatively and independently. Yet, they know you’re still learning and are often eager to teach and help you grow. While it’s important to come prepared to meetings and to do as much independent learning as possible, it’s also expected that you’ll come to your mentor with questions. Knowing how to ask a question can help you get the most productive response. One way to structure your question is to first state what you know or what you researched and attempted to answer on your own and then to briefly state how even though you know these aforementioned things, you’re still unclear or curious about this other thing. This demonstrates that you took the time to try to answer the question on your own yet acknowledges that you’re still uncertain. Framing the question this way will position you well to get a productive and useful response from your mentor.
People respond well to positive feedback and kind words. You know how great it feels to be told by someone you respect that you did a great job. If you have an amazing experience with your mentor, tell them. Although it may seem awkward at first to express your feelings, mentors love hearing how their mentorship helped you. One way to tell your mentor that you appreciate them is to simply share with them, “Dr. X, I just wanted to tell you that you’ve been an incredible mentor to me. I’ve learned so much from you about X, and I truly appreciate the time you’ve dedicated to teach me. Your way of explaining X topic to me, really helped me solidify my understanding and grasp the concept.” If you have a more informal relationship with your mentor, you can just tell them that they’re awesome!
I hope these strategies will help you develop your mentee skills and give you a structured way to think about developing your mentor-mentee relationship.