#Mentoring in #research: an early-career assessment

After spending a decade in the business of ecological restoration and restoration and applied ecology research, I've recently spent some time thinking about mentoring. Right now, I'm a PhD student at a university who focuses on doing collaborative and independent research. In this position, I am not tasked with any hiring or firing, nor am I responsible for managing people in any kind of meaningful way (ignore that future technician applicants for 2014). I wake up and within the constraints of my projects, do some level of writing, data analysis, figure making or proposal writing. As I said, I don't need to worry about managing people to get my work done. Without managing people, my mentoring obligations are left to being collegial to grad students with whom I collaborate and spending time with students through undergrad mentoring programs like those put on by my undergrad alma mater or the SWS.


On the other hand, my boss, who is a hell of a guy, great researcher and extremely motivated, has a million projects and seriously ~10-12 people working for our lab full-time and another 20 collaborators around the world who serve as PIs at research centers or universities and have to manage people of their own. In short, we're at opposite ends of the career spectrum - he as faculty has to bring in the projects and their respective money, hire reliable people, manage those people and create research output (not to mention, as a well-balanced human being, spend time with his family and friends and get reasonable amounts of exercise, etc).

My fellow ET AL graduate students and I whom he sponsors and works with, we're where the rubber hits the road and where most of the research dollars become presentations, papers and transferable technologies for industry. We make these projects happen to learn about our study systems, the technology used to assess these systems, the scientific enterprise, to advance our careers by earning our MS or PhD degrees and to do science that hopefully feeds back on sciences and or environmental management. We do leg work and for better or for worse, we don't have to manage anybody besides a seasonal technician or two in the summer.

In short, we're some needy twenty-somethings who have questions about science, life, academia, research, mountain bikes, fly fishing, funding, etc. We want to learn how to succeed in our chosen profession and have some vague ideas, but are largely taking cues from those around us and past experience. We work hard because we love what we do, but we also do it because we receive exceptional mentoring and strong, useful guidance. We are made to feel as a part of a team that does meaningful work and empowered to succeed. Recently I've have had some talks with peers where they ask me how it's going, and I have to say, "I'm really busy, but it's awesome. I wake up stoked to go to work every day..." This feeling, in addition to the fact I really enjoy riparian ecology and restoration, boils down to being mentored and managed well. Which is, oddly, the luck of the draw for us. Nobody ever taught our mentor(s) how to mentor.

Unlike in the corporate world or MBA programs, scientists are generally never taught how to manage people or money. Only in science do we learn personnel management by doing, often learning by our own or our peers' mistakes. Money management is similar. Using our combined work experience and personalities, academic researchers are told to go do big things involving lots of people and not inconsequential amounts of (often public) funding. At many universities, the graduate teaching assistants and faculty teaching most of the courses barely get any training on formal classroom instruction. Because so much training occurs de facto in this business, mentoring is extremely important. The interactions we have with our more senior peers, external collaborators and our primary advisor are the informal lessons that show us junior researchers how to "play the game" and grow as researchers. Fortunately, we get what we need 'round here...and it's a total coincidence based on personalities, time, space, and research context.

These Carex stipata know as much about personnel management as the average recent PhD graduate.

During my M.S. and undergrad degrees, I was also well-mentored, but I didn't know it at the time. In fact, a consistent thing that I find is that the lessons I took home from my committee members, Greg Ettl, Soo-Hyung Kim and Kern Ewing, didn't really hit all that hard until years down the road. I can say the same thing for my bosses at agencies who tried to spread their wisdom from decades in applied land management and land management research.

A few gems that stand out from my times at UW and USU:

  • Strive for excellence. Specifically, what Greg had said was "strive for your own personal excellence." His point was that in this business, it's futile to make everything a pissing contest or about "winning." The way you learn, the way you create high-quality deliverables, and the way you teach well is to simply do the best that you're capable of at any point in time. This can be hard as you have to make sacrifices, struggle with difficult concepts and methodologies, and do it in the context of limited jobs, grant money and journal space. When you're running a marathon, it's really quite hard to race the clock with thousands of other people running similar courses with comparable end goals. Still, this lesson resonates to me as much as anything: strive for my own personal excellence.  
  • "Only you can control your own attitude." This was another Greg Ettl classic. Sometimes I would walk into my meetings with Greg or Soo and be a grump. Maybe an experiment wasn't going well, maybe I had just received a rejection letter, or maybe I just hadn't gotten enough sleep, but I went in surly. Every time Greg could calmly remind me no matter what happens, I can control how I respond to the events at hand, and it was my choice on how I wanted to move forward. To this day, when I find myself responding poorly to a situation, I think back to this and check myself. It makes a huge difference in how effective I can be within my lab and how collegial I am with the people around me. The way Greg said it was very patient and without judgement - he wanted me to feel better and do better. 
  • Check the data early and often. Working in the realm of ecophysiology where data was collected on living plants in real time taught me that you need to examine your data regularly to make sure that loggers are logging, data entry was correctly done, and to get amped on preliminary trends related to your hypotheses. Soo showed me the technical elements of doing this and was an uncanny trouble shooter with electrical systems and loggers. Why wait to find today's data failure next week?
  • File storage and organization are everything. Until I joined the USFS in Logan and the ETAL here at USU, I had never worked with big data. Big data during my M.S. was a hundred rows by a couple dozen columns and nothing I couldn't manage inside Excel. That changed when I started querying a decade of vegetation data with hundreds of species across thousands of sites. When I put that data into R or GIS and began creating output files and working on projects that spanned months with dozens of collaborators, I knew I had to get organized. After a model failed and I couldn't replicate my own work easily, I got organized.
  • Finding balance is not optional. You are only as productive as you are happy. My bosses over the years have all had families, hobbies and ambitions outside their day jobs. Because they have these things, they can remain well-balanced, productive researchers and treat the people around them with respect and reasonable expectations. I look at my life over the last five years and think that maybe I could have done more research, but I also think of how Greg said, "You're young now and your knees are good - ski!" I also think of how happy my spouse makes me and how much I want to spend time with her. The better life I lead, the better work I do.
  • Always root against the University of Texas - in everything. Kern went to Texas Tech. Guns up. 'Nuff said.
How many species are here: control your attitude and...go!

These mentoring moments were organic, and just came up in the natural progression of talking shop, day-to-day, week-to-week. Nobody carved out awkward forced "mentoring time" as I have heard of some advisors doing. Nor did my mentors set one-size-fits-all expectations or styles for dealing with their students. They let their students be themselves intellectually, individually without forcing their junior researchers to become younger versions of themselves. They didn't judge, they did what they could to support students and when they couldn't offer anything, reached out to people within their networks on our behalf. These are the things that I will keep in mind when I'm eventually tasked with managing people and helping them to meet their goals while they help the team reach its potential. For now, I'm just going to keep rooting against Texas.