Mentoring skills aren't as readily taught as cell culture or microarray analysis, but on the receiving end, such skills can make or break a career. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have devised a way to address what they call a critical gap in faculty training, and they have reported their outcomes in a recent issue of Science (311:473-4, Jan. 27, 2006).
Based on a survey of more than 150 mentors and undergraduate researchers, trained mentors were significantly more likely to discuss expectations with their mentees, who reported that the trained mentors were more accessible and interested in them. Results of the program suggest that "mentors are simply communicating more effectively with their undergraduates so that undergrads have a more realistic view of their own capabilities," explains Jo Handelsman, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor at UW-Madison and director of the Wisconsin Program for Scientific Teaching (WPST), which produced the seminar.
Since the program began in 2003, it has been run more than 22 times at 11 different US institutions. The eight-week program, designed to guide future faculty in mentoring undergraduate researchers, brings together postdoctoral fellows and graduate students for an hour each week to discuss their own mentoring experiences, case studies, and issues such as diversity in the sciences. They also participate in exercises that address nonscience skills integral to lab success, such as time-management and communication skills.
For other institutions considering their own programs, the Entering Mentoring training manual from WPST is available free of charge online (www.hhmi.org/grants/pdf/labmgmt/entering_mentoring.pdf). "You really don't need us to come and talk about it. The joke has often been, you can prepare for the seminar on the elevator on the way to the class. It's very, very easy to just pick [up the guide] and go week by week," says Christine Pfund, first author of the Science report and codirector of WPST. "And really, the meat of the discussions is ... the experiences of the mentors themselves. We just provide a framework for it."