Mentoring the mentors by Nicolino Lo Gullo

Nicolino Lo Gullo, TCSM Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Physics and Astronomy

I am at that stage of the academic career in which I cannot consider myself a young scientist but I do not think of myself as a senior researcher neither. It is true that now I feel more comfortable with the basics of being a researcher such as identifying new problems, generating ideas, collaborating with colleagues, and writing papers to disseminate results of my research. As anyone else, I have learned how to handle all this over the years, mostly by looking at more senior scientists and, no need to say, making many mistakes.

One of the duties that a young scientist undertakes in the attempt of climbing the academic career is the supervision of students, and of PhD students specifically. Usually everything starts when we are asked to help a student in our group. Suddenly we become the reference for the student and without being completely aware of it, we start guiding the student in the tortuous path of the PhD. Are we ready for it? Most likely not, but nevertheless we embark on this venture.

Unfortunately the fact that most supervisors and mentors are not ready for it, seems to be a widespread problem. The results of a recent survey for graduate students and appeared on Nature [1] show that supervision is not something that can be improvised. A very common factor for dissatisfaction is the lack of time spent with the supervisor; nearly fifty percent of the students reported that they spend less than one hour per week with their respective supervisors. This results typically in a slowing down of the publications of the student and therefore in postponing the day of the defense of their PhD.

For the students who participated to the survey, a further worrying factor is the lack of advice on the future career. Their best adviser in this matter is usually internet. The interesting sign is that students are actually expecting to have guidance in the choice of their career after the PhD. Why we do not offer such a support? The reason for the lack of advice in this matter might be sought in the gap between Academia and the society. The PhD degree is still seen as the entrance step into the academic career; supervisors are so focused on their own careers that they do not see any other option or they are totally unaware of these options. Pushing a PhD to undertake the academy career shifts the problem to a later stage and actually worsens it. There are not enough positions in Academy, and keeping filling (the already full) basin of postdocs is dangerous and counterproductive [2].

These and other factors are the generators of that uncomfortable feeling of being “lost and alone”  which seems to be common among PhD students. I have experienced it myself, together with many colleagues, but at that time I did not realize how serious this problem was. I was strongly motivated to complete my PhD and my supervisor has always been available for a chat. He has been there also towards the end of my PhD to give me advice on possible career paths which, in his own opinion, would have been good for me. Unfortunately this seems not to be the rule and taking care of the mental health of PhD students is becoming an increasingly serious problem which demands a solution [3].

The ideal situation is to create a better system where these problems are avoided from the very beginning. This would mean in the first place to educate aware mentors to guide students and recognize certain signals beforehand, to guarantee to PhD students grants for the whole duration of their studies, stop making the PhD candidates feel the pressure of publishing because it is meaningful evaluation parameter only within Academy, and give the PhD students opportunities of exploring beyond-Academia opportunities.

Recently the University of Turku together with Åbo Akademi organize a workshop for early career PIs and, among other topics, it was also discussed the role of PIs as mentors for PhD and postdocs. These events represent a positive signal, but they need to be more structured and the guidance for mentors need to be carried out by the Departments and Faculties. We cannot leave the important task of educating PhD students to self-taught scientists.

Nicolino Lo Gullo
TCSM Postdoctoral Researcher
Department of Physics and Astronomy, Turku Centre for Quantum Physics

References:

[1] Chris Woolston (2019) A message for mentors from dissatisfied graduate students. Nature 575, 551-552
[2] Kendall Powell (2015) The future of the postdoc. Nature 520, 144–147
[3] Editorial (2019) The mental health of PhD researchers demands urgent attention. Nature 575, 257-258

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1 Response to Mentoring the mentors by Nicolino Lo Gullo

  1. Minna says:

    Thanks for bringing up the important issues of mentoring & mental health, to which I’m planning to return in my blog piece in February.

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