Nightmares surrounding STEM PhDs are plentiful — classic examples are the student who spends 14 hours a day in the lab, the coworker who sabotages others’ experiments and the newly graduated student who stares down the barrel of two consecutive postdoctoral positions because they are unprepared for the job market. Each of these scenarios can be traced back to one well-defined yet unsolved problem: bad mentoring. PhD students are voicing concerns about their supervisors, and it is time that academic institutions listen to their students and compel faculty to become better mentors. The data is clear: Students who are supervised effectively are more likely to publish papers, graduate and pursue a satisfying career. On the other hand, students who are poorly mentored underperform and more often develop moderate to severe anxiety and/or depression.
Most STEM PhD students rely on one faculty mentor — known as a principal investigator — throughout their graduate program. As such, it is important that this mentor be adequately trained in management, leadership and communication skills. But too many professors in STEM are hired almost solely on the basis of their ability to bring in money for the university by obtaining grants for their research. Even though graduate students are advised for several years by these professors, universities often do not require formal training to educate professors on the best practices of managing and mentoring students. The lack of human relations and people management skills lead to particularly dark consequences; more than 10% of respondents to Nature’s 2019 PhD student survey experiencing aggressive or overly critical behavior or other forms of bullying from their supervisors. Twenty-one percent also reported experiencing discrimination or harassment. Despite these staggering results, over half of those who reported bullying felt unable to speak out against it. Such a rate of unreported incidents can likely be attributed to fears of repercussion and a lack of trust that the institution will take appropriate action against the supervisor.
This bullying happens right here at Brown. I have personally heard of supervisors manipulating students into working long hours and pitting students against each other to drive competition and increase performance. I have also witnessed supervisors making fun of multilingual students for word choice or pronunciation in front of others. These actions go unreported and unpunished due to the armor of tenure that shields professors. It is thus unsurprising that almost one in four respondents would change their supervisor if they could restart their program, and 23% of respondents said that the impact of a poor relationship with their supervisor was their primary PhD concern. The data is clear, and academic institutions — including Brown — must address these alarming statistics to improve graduate student wellbeing, performance and satisfaction.
According to Stanford University sociologist Morris Zelditch, effective graduate student mentors are multifaceted tutors and support systems. They should readily provide moral encouragement, career guidance and constructive feedback and serve as role models for their students. As Nature’s survey indicates, PhD mentorship tends to fail on most of these fronts — and the anecdotes from Brown graduate student shows that our University is no exception. By holding graduate student mentors to Zelditch’s standards, universities including Brown could not only improve the PhD experience, but also better equip them for their future career path.
To solve the PhD mentoring crisis and achieve Zelditch’s criteria, academic institutions should approach this problem from two perspectives: one that demands faculty meet the expectations of effective graduate student mentors as outlined above and one that encourages graduate students to build a network of mentors at the start of their PhD to fill in gaps when a supervisor falls short. To establish good mentoring practices, institutions should require faculty to attend regular, formal training in human relations, people management and leadership development. Institutions should also regularly solicit graduate students’ feedback on their mentors and take appropriate action against faculty failing to meet expectations. These evaluations would give an anonymous platform for students to rate their supervisors across the six parameters defined above as well as report incidences of bullying, bias or harassment.
Universities must also make it easier for students to form a network of mentors from the outset of their PhD program, rather than expecting that students rely on one supervisor for all of their advising needs. To find this team of mentors, students should be encouraged to seek out and participate in programs, events and courses that are not in their specific field of study to aid in personal, professional and career development throughout their education. Students who cast a wide net in their search for mentors will open more doors for themselves than those who rely on just one.
Selahaddin Gumus GS can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.