- Science - Not only will your choice in mentor shape what projects you work on, but part of the job of the mentor is to train you in both scientific thought and methods. A good mentor will be able to train you to recognize the difference between good research and bad, when to stick with something or give it up, when to publish, and how to produce quality data.
- Continuity of Research - Your mentor will provide partial or total funding for your project through her grants, depending on institutional policies. It is critical you have the funds available to complete your thesis project; without them, there is no project!
- Writing - Your mentor will also guide you to learn scientific writing for meeting abstracts, thesis preparation and publication. It is crucial to learn good written communication skills; they are the bread and butter of science. Without quality publications, your hope for getting a J-O-B is practically nil. A good mentor will produce easy to understand, quality publications and help you to refine your own writing skills.
- Visibility - Related to the above, your mentor can determine how seriously your communications are taken, and whether they are even in existence. A good mentor will encourage your participation in national meetings and timely publication. Your mentor can provide you with contacts to people who work in your field of interest and can advise you on which academic societies are worth your time (and money!)
- Leadership - Your mentor also serves as a model for how you might run a lab in the future. She may also provide you with leadership opportunities within the lab so you can start to develop your own style. Leadership styles differ greatly; try to pick a mentor who is similar to the style you would like to emulate, but not exactly the same. You might learn something from the differences!
- Graduation - Your adviser should always have your graduation in mind. A good mentor will make sure you stayed in school long enough to get the skills necessary to do a postdoc, but not so long that they're taking advantage of cheap labor. They will press you to make progress, without demanding too much or allowing you to fizzle out and get a terminal Master's.
But as you may be aware, I encountered some bumps. Lots of bumps. I chose my first mentor poorly and had to switch labs. My purpose, chickadees, is to prevent future baby Ph.D. students from choosing poorly. Given my methodical mentor-choosing process, where did I go wrong?
You might notice, dear reader, that I did neglect some of the above list when choosing my initial mentor. I did not look too closely at my first mentor's publications to see if she had a good writing style and I took for granted that any mentor would ensure graduation. This was a critical mistake, but not my only one. The other was naivete. There are several things to look for and other things to avoid when choosing a mentor that may not be as obvious as the above list:
- Be wary of someone who is trying to sell their project to you. If it sounds too good to be true, it likely is. There are two big dangers of a PI who is constantly trying to sell their project to you. The first is that they probably aren't going to be able to be objective about their own research - they are likely viewing it through rose-colored glasses. The second is that you will probably get stuck with their pet project, prohibited from taking your project in your own direction. Physioprof has more to say on this subject.
- Pay attention to whether the PI has a good working relationship with everyone in the lab. If not, find out why not. Sometimes personalities just conflict, but in my experience this is the exception not the rule. Generally if the PI has a bad relationship with one or more subordinates, that's a red flag for a difficult PI. Does the PI yell and scream? Is her advice nonconstructive? Does she harass employees for taking vacation or sick time? Does she call her subordinates names or insinuate that she doesn't respect their work or intelligence? Does the PI say one thing to you and another to someone else, that is, does she lie? If you can answer yes to any of these questions, RUN AWAY FOR THE LOVE OF DOG! These are huge red flags of an abusive and/or manipulative boss. This person does NOT have your best interests in mind.
- Another red flag is if the PI initiates a relationship that falls outside of the bounds of "professional, working relationship." Your PI is not your buddy. Your PI is not your mom or your dad or your aunt or your crabby gramps. AND DEFINITELY NOT YOUR LOVER. EVER. Sure, you can have a friendly relationship, but your boss is still your boss, not your friend. A PI who is trying to initiate a close personal relationship is distracting you from the work at hand, and failing to lead. They may even be trying to manipulate you into compliance; this was certainly the case of my first advisor. She would claim she thought of me "as a daughter" and "had my best interests in mind," thus mollifying me into thinking that she really, truly cared so I should take the abuse as a show of concern. I remember toward the end thinking "If you treat me like your daughter, I want CPS to step in...." Both Physioprof and Dr. Isis have many wise things to say on this subject.
- Lastly, be wary of the appearance of funding. I rotated in three labs. The first had 3 postdocs, 3 students and 2 techs, a small microscope room, a bench for everyone with a couple of spares, and a small tissue culture room. The second had 3 postdocs, 2 techs, 2 students, space enough for 2.5 benches per person, a large tissue culture room with 4 hoods and 12 incubators, a dedicated animal room and a small microscope room. The third had 2 students, 1 tech, just enough benches with a spare for equipment, a small microscope annex and a small tissue culture room with 2 hoods and 4 incubators. Which would you guess were the richest and poorest labs? The first was the best funded, with an R01 and several other indirect grants. The third was next, with an NCI (R01-level) grant and a couple small indirect grants. The poorest funded was the second lab, the one with all the fancy space and equipment. That lab had only an R01. In addition, the PI's in the first and third labs applied for every grant which they even halfway qualified for, whereas the PI in the second lab only applied for (and did not receive) renewal of her R01. However when I was rotating, I did not know any of this. I assumed that the second was the best-funded lab, because it appeared to be so. In reality, it was the worst managed. Not knowing this was my fault. Ask potential PIs about their grants and their philosophy on writing grants. Seek opportunities to apply for your own grants. Further, look it up: the NIH offers a search on all grants, searchable by PI name, which gives you the grant use, duration, whether it's been renewed or not, when it expires, etc.