Teaching an old Bull (and others) new tricks

It is no surprise that along with diseases of potatoes, mushroom, chard and beet, AND microbiomes, I am thinking about mentoring mentors. This week we (faculty, staff, and graduate students that are mentoring Summer Research Opportunities Program students) had a mentorship discussion and another group I am involved with is working to prepare some university wide mentor training programs. In fact, over the years I have thought a lot about what makes a good mentor. Lucky for me many people in our department and around campus have been thinking about this over the years too. I am receiving a great deal of mentoring these days.

Pfund et al., 2016 take a data driven look at mentorship from both sides of the relationship. Both mentee and mentor have responsibilities in these relationships. Accurate assessment and self-assessment of knowledge and skills is the first of many characteristics of good mentoring relationships that I will write about. I think it is important to know where your mentee is (assessment) and where they think they are going (visioning) so that you can work with them to develop learning objectives and strategies to get them there. Because each mentee comes from a unique place and they are headed to singular careers, mentorship is best when it is crafted to the needs of the person. The faculty review process this spring helped to bring this home for me. Our faculty have unique talents and accomplishments. This year I learned that even the review process needs to be tailored to the individual because their contributions are varied and distinct. I hope adaptation from this learning will demonstrate that you can teach an old Bull new tricks.


I am describing three different types of assessment tools that I use when mentoring students and postdocs. These can be found on my mentorship page of the blog (https://bullpennblog.wordpress.com/own-best-mentor-resources/ under benchmarking). Students/postdocs: these can be used for your own self-mentorship.

Over the past 10 years, I developed the student self-assessment by compiling the criteria I was asked by universities to assess for undergraduate students applying to graduate school. Thus, both graduate students and undergraduates should be demonstrating these skills. I give a copy of this assessment tool to undergraduate students on the first day they join the lab in order to align our expectations. I have other tools I use to align expectations more specifically but this tool helps them understand how they will be assessed. I use the tool by asking the students to assess themselves for how well they demonstrated these skills. I assess them and the we sit and talk about our responses. The conversation serves a dual purpose in that I use this to take note of examples they give to support their assessment for my letters of recommendation. But most importantly we choose skills for the mentee to improve in the coming semester and outline strategies to work on these either through training or practice. The important step is the reassessment that happens the next semester. How well did the mentee do in demonstrating the skills in the next evaluation period? Is more training or practice needed?

The attached student-intern-assessment is a tool that originated with the California State University at Monterey Bay Undergraduate Research Opportunities Center. I have altered it to fit my laboratory situation. It is more detailed and looks at particular skills and activities. It is useful to monitor progress for daily training. I have used this only with undergraduates that are working in a lab for a first time. If you decide to use, I would advise you to alter it for your research situation and evaluate its usefulness after using it a few times.

The competency check list was produced by the National Postdoctoral Association and is a great skill benchmarking tool for both postdocs and graduate students. It is easy to use either to mentor yourself or to use in a more formal mentorship process.

The faculty would also benefit from benchmarking tools. I am working on one which I hope will be ready for sharing by the end of the summer. I look forward to getting feedback from the faculty about its usefulness to them as a tool for helping to set their paths and prioritize strategies.

So what is left? Yes, there are tools for benchmarking leadership that could be adapted for department heads. My personal and the departmental annual report are great ways of checking in to see if I am hitting my targets. I know I learned a great deal this year especially about the land-grant system, curriculum and the education enterprise, and extension. I have a lot more to learn in all of those areas so I am developing strategies to get the information I need from something other than the firehose in the coming year.

So the seasons go: from assessment to planning to execution and back to assessment.

But mentorship is so much more than assessment. In the end it may be your enthusiasm for science and the projects of your mentees will make all the difference in the outcome. Nature’s mentorship guide, Lee et al., 2007, is the perfect antidote to all this assessment talk. It describes the long lasting satisfaction that both mentee and mentor get from a high quality mentorship relationship.

Happy Summer Solstice Everyone. Let’s get out there and enjoy the longest day of the year!




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