Week 6. Student / mentor relationship

Traditionally, graduate students are viewed as apprentices in the process of gaining professional training. This relationship has a traditional tension between the master and the apprentice. On the one extreme trainees may be treated as almost-peers, encouraged and protected to an extent but largely viewed as independent entities once initial stages of training are completed. On the other extreme, apprentices have been viewed as low cost labor, with an obligation to subordinate individual aspirations to the will of the master. Biomedical laboratories may show these extremes in practice, but almost all cases lie somewhere in the middle. Since the relationship is relatively poorly defined, there are many possible sources of confusion on both sides. Some of the issues which might be considered are: 

The relationship:

  • what is the goal of the relationship: training or production?
  • to what extent does training require independence and responsibility?
  • can training be said to take place if independent research is not productively performed?

The mentor:

  • should a student be assigned general lab duties?
  • how should a thesis project be related to the rest of the work in a lab?
  • how should projects or changes in projects be determined, and by whom?
  • to what extent should a trainee have freedom to make mistakes?
  • what is an appropriate amount of effort and/or productivity by a student?
  • how much effort should a student devote to a specific project and how much to general training?
  • how can credit be divided among workers at different levels, if a student “shares” part of a project? 

The trainee:

  • what is an appropriate amount of effort and/or productivity bay a student?
  • how should projects or changes in projects be determined, and by whom?
  • is it appropriate to have a “hot project” which requires productivity on a deadline?
  • is it appropriate to have a project which is only a part of a larger project in a lab?
  • how much time and effort should a mentor commit to training a student?
  • how much effort should a mentor devote to professional issues, such as career discussion or ethical practices in research?

Is it possible to have an “apprenticeship contract” in biomedical research?

Sample Scenarios

From: HHMI Bioethics

Background: Mike is a graduate student working in Professor Blue's laboratory. Just before winter break, he gets a surprising result that suggests a new line of research.

Part 1: Professor Blue finds the result very exciting and tells Mike to repeat the experiment. Mike says that he will do so as soon as he returns from a family vacation. Professor Blue says that Mike should cancel the vacation plans and repeat the experiment immediately. What should Mike do?

Part 2: Actually, Mike doesn't want to work on the new observation at all. Mike has been a graduate student for 5 years, and thinks he should be writing his thesis. He already has published two papers and has almost enough data for a third. Professor Blue tells Mike that graduate students in the Blue laboratory never finish in less than six years. Now what should Mike do?

Part 3: Another possibility — Mike is a second year graduate student and wants to focus on his new observation. Professor Blue, however, wants Mike to continue working on the main laboratory research. Blue's NIH grant comes up for renewal in six months. Progress has been adequate but not great. Mike says that he is in Professor Blue's laboratory to get training, not just to be a technician on Professor Blue's research grant. Blue says that without the grant there would be no training. Who is right?

Source: Program of Ethics in Science and Medicine, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center

2. Student/mentor relationship

Part 1.
Megan is a third year graduate student and is making steady progress on her thesis. On average, she spends about 60 hours per week in lab and has just published a paper in the Journal of Cell Biology. As a junior member of the lab making the transition to becoming a more senior member, she is taking on greater responsibilities such as training other students and new postdocs. Since Megan is strongly considering teaching at a liberal arts college, she would like to try a second TAship. She would like to TA a semester long special topics undergraduate night course in which she will be the main lecturer. Since Megan has already fulfilled her TA obligation to Washington University, her PI is concerned that TAing a second time would interfere in her productivity (particularly since her thesis topic is in an extremely competitive field).

Megan’s PI recognizes that she is very productive and shows great promise as a researcher, but was caught off guard to hear that she was strongly interested in teaching as a career path. Therefore, his response is that she may do another TAship since he realizes that ultimately it is her choice, but it would be a “very poor decision”.

    1. What is the nature of the relationship between a PI and his/her graduate student? Is it a teacher/apprentice? Advisor/Advisee? Employer/employee? To what extent could this relationship be a combination of the above?
    2. Should Megan take the TAship despite the fact that she knows her PI is not in favor of it?
    3. Should Megan have discussed her career goals with her PI when she settled on her thesis lab since it obviously caught him off guard? Is this the student’s responsibility? Who is responsible for initiating communication between the PI and the graduate student?

Part 2.
Megan decides to take the TAship. Unfortunately, her course is taking much more time than she had originally anticipated, and therefore the progress that she is making is much slower. To compound her problem, Megan’s PI has just returned from a conference and heard that a competing lab is about to submit a paper that is similar to Megan’s work. Megan’s thesis project is not directly related to the general focus of the lab, but if she doesn’t get a significant amount of help, there is a good chance that she will get scooped.

    1. Out of frustration with her slower progress and his eagerness to publish, suppose Megan’s PI reassigns another graduate student and technician to further his/her progress at the expense of their own work.
    2. Now suppose the PI reassigns part of Megan’s work to a post-doc who is in the process of applying for assistant professorship.

Questions: How does the PI balance these potentially conflicting needs of his/her trainees?

General questions:

    1. How do you best balance pleasing your PI and pursuing your own career goals? To what extent should certain decisions be made independent of the PI? What might be the positive and negative consequences of always trying to please your PI?
    2. How much help (and in what form – i.e. capacity) should you expect from your PI as you are preparing for a career? What is the PI’s responsibility in this regard?


Docter, JF. Mentoring in Biomedical Science Graduate Programs: A student’s perspective. Anat. Rec. (New Anat.) 253:132-134, 1998.


Junior biologists score partial victory over lab conditions. Nature 430:7, 2004.


Two Former Grad Students Sue Over Alleged Misuse of Ideas. Science 284:562-563, 1999.


MentorDoctor, Sciencecareers.org


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