There is Nothing so Unequal as the Equal Treatment of Unequals
– Leadership and the One Minute Manager
If someone would have told me 15 years ago that I would write about a blog post on the link between some business management principals and student supervision, I would probably have reply “are you crazy, science is pure, untainted (yeah!). Business is all about money and nothing about peoples”.
However, business is also about peoples, their motivation and personal growth. Nurturing employees and ensuring their happiness is actually good for a corporation: it increase productivity.
The quote at the beginning of this blog post is from a book entitled “Leadership and the One Minute Manager” from the One Minute Manager series. This series, in particular the first book was suggested to me in a discussion with a colleague about making expectation with graduate students clear and how to follow-up.
That quote reflects a fundamental truth about mentoring students: an undergraduate student taking its first steps in the lab as a summer intern is clearly not equal to the graduating PhD student. As such your approach in supervision should be different for both. Assuming that everyone is the same is simply forgetting a significant part our job as university professor: mentoring the next generation of researchers.
- First steps: at this stage, everything is to be learned by your mentee. If your research group is of a good size, knowledge will be transferred by peers (other graduate students) to the newcomer. Overall, supervision is high as it should be but motivation by the mentee is also generally very high i.e. They are eager to learn.
- Getting some freedom: once some competencies and specific knowledge have been acquired, the relationship move to a coaching style. The pitfall at this stage it to let go too early. At this stage, sometimes that mentee will often overestimate its ability or knowledge.
- Productive: In this zone, time involvement from the mentor is small and very rewarding for both the mentor and mentee. The interaction are of higher level of scientific and technical details. The mentee often brings novel elements to the discussion.
- Fully independent: this is where we’d like to bring our senior graduate students.
Summer students clearly belong to the bottom right part of that figure while graduating PhD students are expected to hover around the left portion, somewhere between the top or bottom panels. In fact, if a graduate student has not reached one of the last two quadrants in term of research ability, creativity, professionalism, scientific writing and presentation skills, I would argue that he or she should not graduate with a PhD.
Even during its progression, you should expect a student to fall back to the top right or even bottom right quadrant. Why? Because of the need to acquire a completely new different set of skills. For example, a student become independent and skill in the lab setting progressing to the top right or top left part of the diagram, but writing that first abstract, preparing that first conference presentation or writing that first paper will bring them back to square one and necessitate that you, as a mentor and supervisor, step in with a more hands-on approach.
I certainly cannot stress enough that even as a independent researcher there is always something new to learn for which we will seek out advise or knowledge from colleagues, thus placing ourself in the top left or right corner of the Mentoring Styles! However, recognizing the level of investment that is needed in mentoring each student, to adapt as things evolve, is crucial part of the job description of a supervisor.