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One of the most important elements of your graduate/professional career at Duke is mentorship. The Graduate School has created a Mentoring Toolkit and a list of helpful mentoring materials, books, and Duke services. Below are a collection of recommendations from current Duke students and postdocs:

Mentorship Resources

Sample Questions to Ask a Potential Advisor

  1. How would you describe the lab culture?
  2. How would you describe your mentoring style/philosophy? What do you think your role is as a mentor?
  3. How hands-on are you with your students?
  4. How do you communicate with students?
  5. What are your expectations for a student’s progress over a year?
  6. What do you do when students are struggling?
  7. How do you keep students motivated?
  8. What do you think distinguishes a great graduate student from a good one?
  9. What is your feedback style?
  10. How are students funded (e.g., TA-ships, Research Assistantships, fellowships)?
  11. Do incoming students work on projects that have already been developed, or do they create an individual project?
  12. How much do you collaborate with other faculty? Which faculty members do you have ongoing collaborations with? Are you open to collaborations with new faculty members?
  13. What is your availability? How often do you meet with students? What do you typically discuss in the meetings?
  14. Are there lab meetings? What is their structure?
  15. What is the typical lifecycle for a project?
  16. What is your paper writing style/process?
  17. How many hours do you expect per week of your students?
  18. What is your time-off policy?
  19. How long does it seem to take students in your lab to graduate?
  20. What are the students who graduated from your lab doing now? Did they go into academia, or are they pursuing other careers?

Advice from Current Graduate Students/Postdocs

What are some things you wish you had known about picking a mentor when you arrived at Duke?

“It’s important for PhD students to pick the mentor not the research. A bad mentor can ruin your experience if not make you want to quit all together.”

“The best mentor for you may be someone outside of/adjacent to your exact field or subject area. Similarity of research interests is not as good of an indicator of good mentorship as general personality/ambition/communication-style compatibility is.”

“Find the mentor who you can handle on their worst day.”

“That the environment and my communication with the PI would matter more than anything else about the lab. That problems that were evident during the rotation would not disappear and would probably get worse. That I needed to cultivate an advocate other than my advisor, someone who could advocate for me when the advisor didn’t.”

“Pick someone invested in you and your success.”

“Don’t settle on an advisor if they are not a fantastic fit, because they are a critical part of a long educational experience.”

“Every mentorship style has pros and cons – you should reflect on previous mentors, or even just past professors that you’ve had, and identify good qualities that matter to you most and other qualities that you feel flexible about.”

“[Try to find] a faculty member, who is not your advisor or a close collaborator of your advisor, but is your “alternative advisor”, like a mentor you can seek consultation from in the meta aspects of your academic life, e.g. navigating your way through the department, dealing with your cohort/colleagues/advisor, etc.”

“In terms of picking faculty members to work with, it’s important to make sure that you are working with someone who is willing to give you authorship credit in your collaborations. I was shocked to learn that some students wind up doing entire analyses for a project and don’t get authorship.”

“The importance of choosing someone who’s tuned in to the rest of the department and knows who else to direct you to for different needs.”

“To pick someone partly based on personality and expectation match, not just match of academic interests.”

“Pick FIT over everything else. You will be working with this person for at least 4 years. It is important to pick someone who you get along with and that fits your work style. It is nice to work with highly distinguished faculty, but you will never graduate if that highly distinguished faculty doesn’t fit your needs.”

“It has to be someone who you get along with well. That has made life a lot easier.”

“I wish I knew a bit more about the fragmentation and boundaries some professors in my department have with one another.”

“I have only had wonderful mentoring at Duke, but it may be helpful for people to know that you need different kinds of mentors in addition to your advisor. Your advisor doesn’t have to fill every role in your life.”

“Mentors make promises when they are trying to recruit you that then fall short. Trust your gut.”

“For postdocs, make sure they have trained postdocs that have gone on to successful positions. The more, the better. Ask questions about lab culture, DEI, academic bullying and gage their response.”

“My mentor is very supportive, and it is the most critical factor to consider while selecting your mentor.”

“Asking other people about their experience is valuable, but the experience really varies not only department to department but also advisor to advisor. Trying to cater to what you think your advisor “expects” is no substitute for actually figuring out what a meaningful working relationship looks like to your mentor. There are some things your committee members won’t be able to provide, and it’s okay to look to get these needs met elsewhere.”

“I think the best thing to do is to work with your potential mentor for a short amount of time to know the lab and mentoring style, etc.”

“I wish I knew to interpret my advisor’s answers differently when I arrived. For instance, if you were to ask him/her/them about the best part of the job, the answer I wish I had looked for was “mentoring my students and helping them develop as scientists.” I had interpreted his actual answer of “making scientific discoveries” as being–cutting edge, and passionate about science rather than someone who prioritizes science rather than the personal and professional development of the mentee.”

“I wish I had had more frank conversations with more advanced students about my mentor and how they handled their relationships with him.”

“Find a mentor whose ambitions align with your own. Sure, you may have picked the person because of the research side, but if your advisor is a potato and you are an entrepreneur, it doesn’t work out so well.”