Improving Mentorship Top Priority for UCSF Graduate Students

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Last week, the Associated Students of the Graduate Division (ASGD), the student government representing graduate students at UCSF, shared three major conclusions from its 2017 Mentorship Climate Survey:

  1. Scientific mentorship is effective, while other areas of mentorship need improvement

  2. There is a lack of communication around career goals

  3. Mentorship styles need to be adjusted to meet students’ needs

While ASGD communicated the preliminary results of its mentorship survey with students a year ago, the Town Hall served to place mentorship at UCSF in the context of national discussion of PhD mentorship, take a deeper dive into the data, share what initiatives have been started at UCSF as a result of this data, and facilitate a discussion between key stakeholders in this issue.

Amazingly, 45% of PhD students responded to this student-led, student-crafted, and student-administered survey. The proportional representation of respondents across years, genders, and ethnicities suggests how eager students are to help improve mentorship at UCSF.

Overall student satisfaction is high with mentorship, but this satisfaction decreases through the years of the PhD program. This suggests that mentees’ needs change as they progress, and advanced students aren’t getting what they need.

To understand why mentorship satisfaction breaks down, the survey explored eight areas of mentorship.

Research mentorship is incredibly strong; 90% of students are satisfied with the research mentorship they receive, and 78% of students discuss their research with their mentor at least monthly.

Other areas of mentorship, however, like discussing career goals, communicating expectations, discussing progress to graduation, providing training opportunities, and discussing well being, need improvement.

When asked if they are considering careers exclusively in academia, exclusively outside academia, or either, 77% of UCSF students said they are at least considering careers outside academia.

Students considering careers outside of academia are almost twice as likely to fill out an Individual Development Plan (IDP), but are nearly half as likely to discuss it with their mentor. This suggests that these students are exploring non-academic careers and setting goals to be successful in this area, but not engaging their mentor in the process.

This may be due to continued stigma around “non-traditional” careers for PhDs.

In response to this data, faculty attending the Town Hall asked how they could best start conversations about non-academic careers without seeming like they were passing judgment on a student’s perceived ability to be successful in an academic career.

Dean Watkins encouraged faculty to set the tone for these conversations by making it clear to students that, as mentors, they were supportive of their student(s) exploring the many career paths open to PhDs, so that when students are ready to discuss future careers, they know their PIs will be receptive.

The data also brought to light striking discrepancies between the experiences of UCSF’s diverse student groups. Students from under-represented minorities and students that identify as non-binary or other genders are over twice as likely to have switched labs than the general PhD population.

Seventy-one percent students identifying as non-binary or other genders have considered leaving graduate school, while only about half of students identifying as men or women have considered leaving.

This survey clarified and contextualized areas for graduate student mentorship improvement at UCSF, particularly around career development/discussion of career goals, and that the diverse needs of students need to be recognized and strived to be met.

Excitingly, several initiatives aimed at improving mentorship training for both mentors and mentees have started at UCSF as a result of this data.

The Biomedical Sciences and Developmental Biology and Stem Cell Programs have developed a pilot Thesis Mentoring Development Program to support faculty in mentoring students.

The Graduate Division instituted a Third-Year Reorientation, a day-long session to help students understand their changing mentorship needs after the qualifying exam.

The UCSF Office of Career and Professional Development (OCPD) is offering an interactive workshop on June 1 as a follow-up to ASGD’s annual “Choosing Your Thesis Lab” panel discussion, which will be held on Tuesday, April 24 at 6 pm (RSVP here).

OCPD will also be piloting a new session for incoming first year students to help them identify their mentoring needs and know what to look for in their rotations.

Additionally, OCPD is creating a new training series called “Managing Up,” which will help trainees skillfully navigate lab life, work relationships, and their career goals. While ASGD’s survey and the majority of the responses have been directed at improving graduate student mentorship, postdoctoral scholars can benefit from this new series, too.

More information will be on the OCPD website in May.

In the discussion that followed the presentation, faculty voiced the challenge they face in applying mentoring techniques to meet a student’s needs when there is a breadth of possible approaches.

This highlights the need for both parties to discuss and come to an understanding of what the mentoring relationship entails.

Mentees can help their mentors by reflecting on and communicating their needs to align expectations with thesis advisors early on. Mentees should also be supported in seeking other sources of mentorship, as they should not solely rely on a single thesis mentor to meet all of their needs.

In fact, it is suggested that trainees should have five types of mentors: a field mentor, a career mentor, a guide mentor, an inspirational mentor, and a friend mentor. You can read more about these types of mentors in a Synapse article that Naledi Saul, Director of OCPD, wrote a few years ago.

To address the challenge of finding these additional mentors, Graduate Division Registered Campus Organizations like Women in Life Sciences (WiLS), Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), and Scientists for Diversity (S4D) are hosting student-faculty mixers to allow students to socialize with faculty and grow their mentorship network.

The Mentorship Town Hall was the culmination of a year and a half of hard work by ASGD members, and it deserves a hearty applause from all.

Culture change can be slow, but this survey has spurred both a bottom-up and top-down push to improve the mentorship climate at UCSF.

The administration is engaged with these issues, but needs engagement from both students and faculty to make a lasting change.

Did you miss the Town Hall, but now wish you had attended? You’re in luck! The event was recorded and is available for viewing until April 16, 2019. All of the data from the Mentorship Climate Survey is available in a report on the Graduate Division website.