While conducting investigations, researchers often assume the added
role of mentors to trainees.* The mentor-trainee relationship is complex
and brings into play potential conflicts. How much time—training
time for the mentor, research time for the trainee—should each
devote to the other? Who gets credit for ideas that take shape during
the course of a shared experiment? Who owns the results? When does a
trainee become an independent researcher?
The essential elements of a productive mentor-trainee relationship
are difficult to codify into rules or guidelines, leaving most of the
decisions about responsible mentoring to the individuals involved. Common
sense suggests that good mentoring should begin with:
- a clear understanding of mutual responsibilities,
- a commitment to maintain a productive and supportive research environment,
- proper supervision and review, and
- an understanding that the main purpose of the relationship is to
prepare trainees to become successful researchers.
Understandings and agreements, however, will count for little if they
are not backed up by firm commitments to make a relationship work.
Knowing the importance of personal commitments, researchers should
carefully consider what responsibilities they have to trainees before
they take on the essential task of training new researchers. Trainees,
in turn, should be we aware of their responsibilities to mentors before
accepting a position in a laboratory or program.
* The term “trainee” is used in this chapter to refer
to anyone learning to be a researcher under an established researcher’s
supervision. This includes principally graduate students and postdoctoral
fellows (postdocs), but may also include undergraduate and high school
students working on research projects or junior research faculty, research
scientists, and research staff.