Saturday, January 1, 2011

Mentoring (or Managing)

One overlooked aspect of scientific training is the transition from being a worker to a manager.  While most scientists don't think management is important (I once asked a faculty candidate about his management style, and he said it was the first time someone had asked him that), I think it is critical to how a lab operates.  I've worked in and talked to people from mismanaged labs, and it can significantly reduce productivity, either due to morale, or misplaced effort.

As I've gotten older, I have had a few opportunities to manage (or mentor?) people.  My general philosophy for these situations is to spend significant time training them initially so that they can work independently.  That way they can increase productivity over the long term, instead of constantly taking time.  Due to my nature, and how difficult science can be, I also try to couch mistakes as learning experiences rather than failures.

Last year I mentored an undergrad, Wei, which went swimmingly.  He was somewhat older than typical, 24, having served a few years in the Singaporean military; he worked hard, and we got along well together, discussing philosophy and politics.  The details of this are for another post.

This fall I managed a rotation student from China, let's call her Vera. Managing Vera was more difficult.  This was a fall, viz. first, rotation, so my expectations were tempered.  In the first semester of graduate school, students need to adjust to a grad student schedule that includes 2-3 days/week of classes, and more focused lab time (compared to daily 1-2 hour classes in college, and unsupervised homework time).  They also are learning to live on their own, feed themselves, pay bills, and do the other sundry errands of daily life. My goal for a fall rotation is for them to learn the techniques in the lab, and hopefully produce some reliable data.

A second challenge was the language barrier.  Vera had just come from China, and her English skills were quite raw.  Explaining techniques and concepts generally took three times longer than I had anticipated.  This of course gradually improved over the rotation, and there was not much I could do about this but be patient.

A third problem was cultural.  There is a stereotype of Chinese education that students are expected to memorize facts, and not ask questions.  I had previously thought this was overblown, but in mentoring Vera found it to be true.  I would explain something, and she would say, "Uh-huh," as if she understood.  But if I asked her to do what I taught, she would stumble.  This lack of question asking, compounded with language issues, made the first weeks frustrating.  Once I realized what was happening, I took more time when I explained things to ensure that she fully understood what I was saying.

I won't dwell on the details of the project itself, as that is not the focus of this post.  It ran into snags fairly early on, which were above Vera's expertise, and would require more time than I was willing to commit since this was not my project.  One issue from my perspective was the late schedule that she kept (typically after 10PM), so that if she had technical problems while doing experiments, I was not around to help.  I'm not sure whether to be satisfied she was willing to work late, or annoyed I couldn't help.

Another issue was missed deadlines.  At the end of the rotation she had to give a lab meeting, and I wanted to see a finished presentation a few days earlier to ensure it would go well.  She missed the first and second deadline, and I was eventually tied up in other work so I could not see it.  I was quite worried the presentation would be a disaster given the language issues, and it being her first presentation, but it went off quite well.  Once again, I'm not sure what to make of this.

Now that the rotation is effectively over, I performed an exit interview.  I try to do this when I am both the manager and the managed.  It's been a while since I did one, so I just asked the basic questions: what went well? What could be improved? Did these specific techniques work?  It was pretty interesting.

From her perspective, most everything went well.  She found me patient, and friendly.  When she had problems, I advised her but made sure she did it, giving her freedom.  I try to force people to read papers, and then sit down with them to make sure they understand the papers.  Apparently this was quite effective, since other people had asked her to read papers, which she never did, but in this case she did.

On the downside, besides the communication issues early, she mentioned that I was not "strict" enough (strict in quotes due to potential language ambiguity).  The one specific example she gave was that she often didn't come into lab, and I did not say anything.  I'm of a few minds on this.  First, for that specific example, I think it's the student's responsibility to come to lab without prompting.  If lab-time is insufficient, I can't solve that by making requests.  Should I write an e-mail saying, "Please come to the lab," or "Let's meet tomorrow."?  Or "I'm disappointed in the amount of lab time you're putting in."?    My general philosophy, from reading behavioural psychology, is that positive reinforcement is more effectively than negative reinforcement. So I would rather reward someone for coming to the lab when they do, than punish them when they don't.

Another way to interpret "strict" is structure, or organization.  I had not set a fixed time every week to discuss data or other issues, rather doing it on an ad hoc basis.  Furthermore, I did not keep records of the project status at different times, to track (and remind myself) of what was happening.  Perhaps by setting up expectations to be met, I could have incentivized achievement.

Overall, I think this project was a good learning experience.  I learned to be patient with people with communication difficulties, and how to ensure accurate communication.  I also apparently managed well enough that the "employee" thought I did a good job.  In the future, I need to be more structured or organized to make things simpler, and hopefully more effective.

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