Tag Archives: graduate school


Mentors have been depicted in literature, TV, and movies in multiple ways. Descriptions of imperfect ones are my favorites as they are probably closest to the true situation. Science training has long relied on mentor based training where student joins the laboratory of their adviser and becomes an independent scientists under their tutelage.



Sometimes there is a disconnect between mentor and student, no matter how well the mentor means his advice. The student has knowledge already and is eager to try hands on applications. This reminds me of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” TV show’s mentoring relationship between Buffy and her “Watcher” Giles. Their approach to the task, in this case “slaying vampires” is very different and causes friction between the characters at times. This relationship is at it’s core however supportive.

This might not be the case in real life. The monster mentor stories are not common, but when you hear them, they are horrific. Blatant disregard to students needs, and even laws, twist the scientific community in the eyes of the students. The sometime sink-or-swim mentality of mentor can destroy promising careers, that could have blossomed with even the slightest support at the right time.


http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article- 2432321/Bald-bird-rescued-meth-house-road-recovery-feathers-grow-back.html

Mentorship, just like teaching, should be learning with the student and acknowledging their prior information and skills. This is at least partially the case in “Breaking Bad” mentor Walter White and student Jesse Pinkman. Walter, a high school chemistry teacher, enlists the help of Jessie, to cook high quality methamphetamine for making money for his family. At least in the beginning Walter teaches Jessie about the chemistry behind cooking. He also respects Jesse’s knowledge of drug dealing in their operation. The mistakes Walter makes in his teaching of Jesse are based on his selfish needs and assumptions he makes about his student’s knowledge. This is why I like to watch the interactions between them. I get to reflect on how the situation should have been dealt with, and it brings my own weaknesses to my attention. While it would be questionable to tell my future students, some of my teaching and mentoring strategies are influenced by “Breaking Bad”, I would be lying if I denied it. And bad example is an extremely effective teacher.

Nature compiled a guide for mentors in 2007. It is no wonder that mentoring relationships, be it real or fictional, are not perfect. The list of characteristics is staggering with availability to students, creating scientific community in the lab, enthusiasm, and unselfish behavior. I am lucky to have this kind of mentor as a positive example. Maybe one day the list of qualities for a good mentor seems less daunting and more doable.




Higher education for todays life after PhD

When ever I talk to relatives or friends outside academia, I get the feeling that I am considered a complete nerd incapable of any “real world thinking”. Even some employers avoid hiring PhDs because they are viewed as too theoretically oriented and too expensive. In some field this might be true. And it should not be. The higher education system should serve the community.

There are not enough positions in academia for all graduate students anyway. And all graduate students don’t desire those positions. We need to prepare students for the whole world,  not only for academia. The info graph below describes the faith of biology PhDs. If 15 and 20% of post-doctoral researchers go to tenure track or non-tenure track faculty positions, it is actually under 23% of all students who receive PhDs. We cannot afford to only cater for the 22.6% percent who will become faculty.

Offering options and softer skills needed to survive in industry or as an entrepreneur for example would make any graduate program more attractive to students.  Virginia Tech’s certificates and transformative graduate education are a great help for career planning. But we could be doing more to help future PhDs to apply their degree outside academia.

Offering instruction in “soft skills” can help students build a suitable degree for non-academic workplaces. Simple accounting can help any academic to hold the lab’s funding in order, and leadership classes will help future workers deal with other people at their work place, where ever they end up at. Some of these are already offered and just need to be marketed better for students as well as their mentors. Contacts to industry will help engineering students and biology students alike. Internships care a great option for students with the time and their adviser’s blessing to take time off their research. But mentoring is useful for everyone.

Having a great mentor can make your career. But finding a great mentor can be very tricky. Virginia Tech does a great job supporting undergraduates as they come to the university. Even new faculty can get mentoring. PhD student’s mentor should ideally be their adviser. But that adviser is embedded in academia. Every PhD student should have a mentor outside academia to offer thoughts on possible career moves outside the university system. They could be part of the PhD student’s committee, or just an extra support.

In the future, I would like to see a larger number of PhDs to find jobs outside academia with confidence that they can make it in this environment.