Study: How to make mentors matter in the sciences

MADISON - Students in science often joke that finding a good research advisor can be almost as tricky as finding the perfect spouse. The sentiment is not without some truth in the challenging world of research science, where an advisor's ability to step in as an encouraging mentor is sometimes the one thing that keeps a student going.

A growing body of literature demonstrates that good mentors can be integral to boosting student productivity, raising the quality of training and attracting and retaining underrepresented students in science. But most researchers are still learning to become effective mentors on their own, often after years of trial and error.

To help ease that process, scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison developed the Wisconsin Mentoring Seminar, an 8-week course that invites postdoctoral and graduate researchers to come together for an hour each week to discuss mentoring strategies and problems, communication skills, issues of human diversity and personal mentoring experiences.

"The idea is to work with future faculty to train them to become the next generation of really excellent mentors and teachers," says Christine Pfund, co-director of UW-Madison's Wisconsin Program for Scientific Teaching (WPST), which developed the seminar alongside an accompanying training manual entitled "Entering Mentoring." "Because graduate and postdoctoral students often serve as primary mentors for undergraduate students, we targeted our efforts there." In the last two years, the mentoring seminar has run more than 22 times at 11 educational institutions around the country. In this week's issue of the journal Science (January 27, 2006), lead author Pfund describes the initiative and ongoing efforts to quantitatively evaluate the seminar's impact on participants and the undergraduates they mentor.

"Because we're promoting good scientific teaching, it's important for us to apply the rigor of research to teaching and learning as well,' says Pfund, who is also associate director of UW-Madison's Delta Program in Research, Teaching and Learning.

What sets the UW-Madison seminar apart is its immediate, real-time nature, says senior author Jo Handelsman, a professor of plant pathology and the director of the WPST. More than simply reading a book or article, the seminar "is a dynamic process of sharing ideas, problem solving, acquiring knowledge, and applying that knowledge immediately," says Handelsman, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor.

Here at UW-Madison, the seminar has thrived through fruitful collaborations between the WPST and campus initiatives such as the Summer Research Opportunities Program for Undergraduates and the Wisconsin Alliance for Minority Participation. Pfund, Handelsman and co-author Sarah Miller Lauffer also plan to complement their mentor-training activities with a similar seminar devoted to good teaching, to help graduate students improve their skills in the classroom.

Ultimately, Handelsman hopes that other graduate programs in the country will one day follow UW-Madison's lead in creating better teachers and mentors. "I believe learning to teach and mentor students should be as routine in graduate education as learning to give a good seminar," she says. "Training graduate students only in research is like training pianists to play with their right hand and telling them to figure out the left on their own -- after they start giving concerts."


- Paroma Basu, (608) 262-9772,

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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It is common sense to take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.
-- Franklin D. Roosevelt