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Mentoring in Academia: One Size Does Not Fit All

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“Only when you do a PhD, you get paid for doing something you enjoy doing and you also get a degree at the end.” This is the philosophy with which I work, trying to give each student the time they need, helping them to work at their own pace. I am happy to work overnight to comment on a manuscript from a workaholic student, to allow the highly self-critical and thorough student to take months for one analysis, to discuss science and gossip with a student who is like family, to be a little formal with a student who likes to keep a distance or to wake up in the middle of the night to receive a call from student who is going through a panic attack. After all, it takes all kinds of flavours to make a dish savoury!

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The academic social network in India has recently been abuzz with stories of data manipulation, duplication and misreporting. Needless to say, these are all crimes of the worst kind in the academia, and we have evolved various ethical guidelines to combat them. As per the guidelines of the UGC (May 2016), students registered for PhD programs are required to take a minimum four-credit course on Research Methodology, which includes research ethics as a topic. We thus assume that all students registered in various PhD programs across the country are given a capsule on research ethics to internalize, and they do so. But do all students registered in various PhD programs across the country take such a course, and even if they do, do they really “learn” research ethics and use this learning in their lives? This question might appear to be a simple one, but an attempt to answer it might stir up a hornet’s nest of issues in the academia, which most try to brush under the carpet.

 

A couple of years ago, I had designed a survey to collect some inputs from PhD students in India on their awareness of research ethics. This had stemmed from a discussion that we were having during a course I taught on Scientific Communication, where we were discussing issues like plagiarism, data manipulation, representation, etc. I was quite sorry that in spite of sharing the survey widely through various platforms and requesting friends and colleagues to spread the word, I received only about 40 responses to the survey. While writing this article, I shared the survey again and the total number of responses went up to 75, of which 46 are from current PhD students, while the rest are from people who have either just submitted their thesis or have completed their PhD in the last 1-6 years, and are thus early career researchers. In spite my sincere attempts, I got only 20 responses from universities; central, state and private included, and 49 of the responders were from the biological sciences. This could be a reflection of the bias of my social network, and so I wanted to highlight these before sharing more information.

 

What I learnt was that 23 of the 75 responders had never taken a course on research ethics, either as an independent course or as a part of some other course. 37 of the responders (71%) agreed that they had indeed learned from the course that they had taken, and several pointed out plagiarism issues, honesty, data integrity as some of the key takeaways from such a course. 13 of the responders stated that they have not co-authored any research papers, which means a fraction of those who have already been involved in publications (82.7%), either as first, middle or (in a few cases) corresponding authors, have either not been exposed to or have not learned from a course on research ethics.

 

This brings me to a major concern that I have developed over the last decade or so, seeing the world from a perspective different from that of a student. Personally, I had quite a rollercoaster ride when I started my independent career as a researcher and faculty member at IISER Kolkata. Keeping my personal story aside, I realized, with a mix of amazement and sadness that the academic world that had appeared to be a happy place when I was a PhD student, actually had a lot of dark secrets. As a PhD student at IISc, I had laughed reading “PhD comics” and seeing PhD life memes, but I had never taken them really seriously. Of course, there had been people around me with upsetting stories, but they were a minority in my wonderland. Only when I was sitting at the other side of the table and interacting with people on both sides, did I begin to see the real picture emerge, which left me rather upset.

 

Looking back

I did my PhD at the Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES), Indian Institute of Science (IISc), with Prof. Raghavendra Gadagkar (RG). I still look back on my PhD days as some of the happiest years of my life. I matured as a person and learned to be a scientist during those years, picking up skills that have helped me in my journey ever since. CES was a department that was home to its students, and generally had a group of people with varied interests. Our research group was a family, where I made friends for life. RG was not just our research supervisor, he was a friend, philosopher and guide, a mentor in the true sense of the word. When I needed to discuss an idea, or vent my frustration or complain about some flaw in the system, he was the person I went to. We spent hours discussing literature, art, philosophy and pedagogy and of course, science. He and Geetha, his wife, were like caring parents to the students, and we were always welcomed to their home with a smile, a hot cup of tea or coffee and snacks. When I decided to get married, RG was the first to know, when I was expecting my first baby, RG was again the first to know. He advised us to apply to the IISERs when I was ready to move on. Unlike most supervisors, he was happy when I decided to shift from his field of research to a completely new one. He stood by me when I went through a tough time in my career and continued to provide me the strength to keep doing my science. Even today, he is always a phone call away whenever I need advice, or just someone to discuss an idea with.

 

My PhD journey taught me the importance of asking questions, for breaking silos and for effective communication. RG was always supportive of his students engaging in various activities outside the lab, and this gave me the opportunity to indulge myself, engaging in a wide range of activities on and off campus, which helped me mature intellectually, creatively and personally. He was a patient listener and critic, when I reported on my various activities, an indulgent supervisor when I wanted to try out crazy ideas, and a loving grandparent to my first born. I had always loved teaching, and RG offered me the chance to handhold new students and even postdocs and a long line of interns throughout my stay at CES. It is through this experience that I learned the first steps of mentoring and training students for research. We did not have a course on Research Methodology during those days, but I learned to write papers and grant proposals, oversee projects, give feedback on the performance of interns, critically assess published papers and give seminars, through actually doing all of these. When I finished my PhD, he asked me to help him review manuscripts, subtly teaching me another essential skill for a life in the academic world. This, to me, is the role of a true mentor – to be there when the mentee needs them; to provide subtle guidance, gentle nudging, a little handholding, and sometimes active support, as the need may be, without encroaching upon the independence of the mentee. This is a lot to ask, and immensely difficult to achieve. This is why I look up to my mentor and strive to emulate him in my life. He is indeed a model easy to admire and very difficult to mimic.

 

Present continuous

Even after spending more than a dozen years as a faculty member, I often feel that I have not quite lost my “student” persona. And this is perhaps why I have made many friends among the students that I have taught at IISER Kolkata. I have, in fact, had the privilege of teaching at all possible levels in this institute, thus engaging with a large cross-section of the students that have spent years of their youth with us. One issue that has stood out among others has been the lack of understanding and support for mental health. One the one hand, many who need help do not understand this, and on the other, people around them are not supportive, leading to a rather difficult situation on many campuses. I have personally been involved in counselling students through my years at IISc and IISER Kolkata, and I have seen a rise in mental health problems. I don’t know if this is because I am interacting with many more young people at IISER, or because I have become more perceptive of these issues, or because there is indeed a rise in the fraction of people needing mental health support. Nevertheless, this is a problem that often gets ignored or brushed under the carpet at best.

 

As a mentor, one needs to be perceptive of one’s mentee’s intellectual and emotional needs. Not everyone is a good listener, but I strongly feel that this is a prerequisite for a good mentor. Young people can be emotionally much more vulnerable than us, and are often going through various issues like settling down in a new campus, staying away from home for the first time, making new friends, adjusting to completely different food habits, falling in love and enduring heart breaks, finding varied interests and failing in time management, handling competition and making career choices, to name a few. While some take all of these in their stride and blossom, others find the challenges difficult to handle, and get bogged down by the stress. They need support from mentors, who would hold their hands to tide over difficult times, nudge them on when they fall behind, give them space when they need it, encourage them to try harder, cheer them for little successes and provide a patient ear when they need to vent their passions. This can be quite a challenge for us, but then, when we choose to build a life in academia, do we not pick up this mantle of mentorship too?

 

Another issue that often gets hushed up in the academic scene is of harassment and abuse. This is mostly specific to the relationship of the PhD supervisor and their students, because here lies a power equation. The supervisor is often seen as the “boss”, who has the right to decide the path a group’s research will take and control every little step the group takes. I have seen students being “scared” of their supervisors, not having the courage to ask for leave to go home, even for very valid reasons, leave alone taking a vacation. There are labs where students are monitored, asked to sign in at 8 am and work until 10 pm, and keep tabs on each other. Students are often made to believe that their PhD supervisors can control their lives, restrict their activities outside the lab and keep them “chained” to the lab benches. Many students actually believe that they cannot complain to the authorities, because the supervisors can “ruin” their careers. It is this fear and that of social stigma, that prevents many girls from raising their voices against male supervisors when they are sexually harassed, abused or even discriminated against. Its high time students realised that it is in fact, the supervisor who has already built a career and perhaps a reputation, which can be ruined if the students complain and matters become public. A student who has just started a journey in research and is yet to be known to the world, does not yet have a reputation that can be ruined so easily.

 

A PhD supervisor has a very critical role to play in the life of their mentees; a PhD is not just about doing research to write a thesis, publish papers and generally work towards a degree. It is about training in critical thinking, ethical practices, teaching and engagement, about developing into a future independent researcher, who can, in their turn, train others. This is a responsibility that we need to take very seriously. Some of us run research groups like factories, mass producing research articles and PhDs. While some of these graduate students are excellent researchers, many are not truly engaged in “doing research”, but are hands that follow protocols and complete experiments efficiently, without asking a question. While such research groups do a service to society by training a large number of individuals in certain research methods, they do not produce true mentors or teachers. Some of us, on the other hand, are too selfish to engage with “not so smart” young people, and hand pick very few students, who are so smart and talented that they don’t need much mentoring. They need the resources and some guidance, and can carry out their research on their own. Such students are likely to win prizes and be highly successful researchers in their own right.

 

Personally, I believe that one should choose to take up a career in research only if they are highly motivated. A PhD is what a researcher earns, and should have the right to do so at one’s own pace. However, policymakers would not agree, and we have the onus to see a student through their PhD in a maximum number of years. This can be highly stressful, for both the mentor and the mentee, and at times leads to a situation of conflict between the two parties. I feel that we often forget that it’s the student’s PhD, not our own, and students often forget that the onus is on them to complete the work required to earn the degree. Having gone through a system of endless examinations, it might take one some time to get adjusted to the idea of working, not for an examination, but for one’s own satisfaction. A mentor’s role is to be the guiding light, and this is a great responsibility that we shoulder. We need to be aware of the strengths and limitations of our mentees and understand the personalities of each. This, I believe, is rather difficult if one has a large research group to work with and I admire my colleagues who can do this. As mentors, it is our responsibility to inculcate best practices among our students, irrespective of whether they have attended a course on research ethics. When our mentees shine and win accolades, we rightfully bask in their glory, but we also need to carry their burden of shame if they make mistakes. It is easy to blame a student for misrepresenting data, but very difficult to acknowledge that we have been negligent, or perhaps, too much in a hurry to get a fantastic result published. The race of metrics, awards, grants, honours often blinds us, especially when we are struggling to establish a career in academic research, struggling to climb up the ladder and attain a strong foothold within the system. While this entails a lot of stress on the mentors, we need to be cognizant of the needs of our mentees and ensure that they do not get left behind as we keep running to reach the next target.

 

My mentor had told me something in our first meeting, which I still remember. He said, only when you do a PhD, you get paid for doing something you enjoy doing and you also get a degree at the end. This is the philosophy with which I work, trying to give each student the time they need, helping them to work at their own pace. I am happy to work overnight to comment on a manuscript from a workaholic student, to allow the highly self-critical and thorough student to take months for one analysis, to discuss science and gossip with a student who is like family, to be a little formal with a student who likes to keep a distance or to wake up in the middle of the night to receive a call from student who is going through a panic attack. After all, it takes all kinds of flavours to make a dish savoury!

 

Anindita Bhadra is Associate Professor at the Department of Biological Sciences, IISER KolkataViews expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Confluence, its editorial board or the Academy.

 

This article is part of a Confluence series called “Mentor-Mentee Relationships in Academia: Nature, Problems and Solutions”

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