Throughout my entire educational journey, it has always been my nature to consistently work hard. Coming into a PhD program immediately after my undergraduate studies, I thought I had everything figured out, ranging from potential lab mentors for rotations to specific study strategies for first year curriculum classes. However, no amount of preliminary preparation could have braced me for the mental and emotional challenges that are associated with obtaining a PhD, specifically Imposter Syndrome while being an underrepresented individual in the field. Going through the process of finding a dissertation mentor and adjusting to a new academic setting contributed to the several factors that triggered a deep sense of loneliness and confusion on whether I belong in research. The most difficult aspect of this transition was learning what to look for in a mentor and what type of support would I need to finish the program successfully. After going through three rotations, I found myself still without a mentor and a lab environment that I felt that I could thrive in. The overwhelming feelings of defeat and rejection clouded my mind, and I was not quite sure where I went wrong. I asked myself constantly, “Did I not make more conscious decisions on mentors based off their personalities? Was I not available enough to juggle classes, lab, and being a mom? All these factors were important in my mind but none of these things seemed to put me in the right direction.
From that point forward, I decided to take a leap of faith and acknowledge why I wanted to become a scientist in the first place. I came into this field to change the world through scientific discovery, break racial and socioeconomic barriers, and educate minority communities on disease prevention. Looking at the big picture of how my goals are set to impact humanity is what allowed me to change my mindset. As soon as I realigned my values, everything came to me at once. With positivity, patience, and persistence, I was blessed to acquire a mentor who gives me the opportunity to truly express myself without questioning my intellectual ability. This lab is a place where I can be seen for who I am and not what I look like. No matter what I say I am heard, acknowledged, and appreciated for who I am as I am and not what I am expected to be or what I have to offer. I am appreciative of the knowledge, wisdom, and affirmations that are spoken into every experiment I conduct. Learning is an adventure that is worth taking. There will never be a day I regret the lab I chose. Picking your lab is about finding the mentor who is edifying to your soul. When you find your lab, you will know it, and the feeling is indescribable. Working with a team of cutting-edge researchers never gets old. As a scientist and a black mother in STEM we must never forget to nurture ourselves while also liberating the world through one discovery at a time.
Mia Edgerton-Fulton is a highly motivated and aspiring PhD trained neuropathologist, who is passionate about investigating potential therapies in dementia-related diseases. She is currently completing her PhD in Neuroscience at the Medical University of South Carolina where she actively engages in research related to post-stroke cognitive impairment (PSCI) and vascular dementia. Mia’s previous undergraduate experience as a historically black college/university student at Savannah State University has inspired her to advocate for improved health in minority communities by incorporating her scientific knowledge on the impact of stroke and its comorbidities on overall brain health. Mia also expanded her knowledge in dementia research as a neuroscience undergraduate research fellow at the Mayo Clinic. For the future, she plans to pursue a career in the biotechnology industry as an independent scientist with her own startup company.
Educators often find themselves in the role of advisor, either formally or incidentally. If you teach or lead a research group, it is likely students or trainees arrive at your office door with a plethora of questions or issues, seeking your input. Yet, very few academics have formal training in how to advise students.
How do you become a productive advisor who supports the success of your students? For the purpose of our discussion, I am defining advisor as any person who provides guidance, information, or advice to a student or trainee, the advisee. Many productive and inclusive advising strategies align with effective teaching practices.
Inclusive advising strategies interrupt assumptions an advisor may have about the needs, issues, or questions facing an advisee. It also acknowledges and embraces the relationship between the academic, professional, and personal trajectories of each advisee. One approach to inclusive advising is to use a question-focused advising strategy. Rather than advisors serving only as a conduit for information, advisors should ask advisees thoughtful and strategic questions, within the context of a collegial and respectful conversation. When an advisor carefully and attentively listens to the responses provided by the advisee, the advisor gains important information about how to support and assist the advisee.
There are many points to consider when advising, but here are a few suggestions for advisors, followed by examples of questions advisors can ask advisees. These questions are not to be used in sequential order, but rather as needed.
1. Listen carefully. This strategy is a lot harder than it sounds. It is easy to provide information, but is the information the right information? When careful and engaged listening directs advising, advisors are much more likely to provide the information and support needed by the advisee.
Questions to ask advisees: How can I help you? What brings you to my office today? What are your goals for this project/assignment/course? Did we address the issue that brought you in today? Do you think the solutions we talked about today are attainable? Do you have any other questions for me?
2. Believe advisees when they say they are struggling. Again, much harder than it sounds. Help advisees think through productive steps forward, rather than sending them off to figure things out on their own. Check-in with them later to help address lingering questions.
Questions to ask advisees: Can you remember a time when things were going well? What worked for you at that point? What strategies are you using to navigate these issues? If those strategies are not working, can we brainstorm other strategies? Can we work together to find resources to support your success? Do you have local friends you can turn to when you are having difficulties?
3. Guide advisees to identify what they need to achieve their academic, professional, and personal goals. After careful listening, assign advisees homework. Assignments could include visiting a resource on campus or doing directed online research to find the information they need to design a plan to accomplish their goals. Schedule future appointments for the advisee to report back what they found.
Questions to ask advisees: What information do you need to achieve your goals? What information do you have? What resources do you need to find? Is there anyone you know who would be a good resource?
4. Recognize the power dynamic between advisors and advisees. Even the most friendly and welcoming advisors can be intimidating to advisees. It takes courage to talk to an advisor. Given the power dynamic, advisees may be too intimidated to speak-up when they do not understand their advisor’s suggestions or advice.
Questions to ask advisees: Can you explain to me what your next steps should be to address this issue? Is there anything I said that I need to explain in a different way for you to be better prepared to address this issue?
5. Advisors are at a different point in their career than their advisees. It is likely the life priorities of any given advisee and advisor are different. Ask advisees about their priorities, listen carefully, and believe what they say.
Questions to ask advisees: Where do you see yourself in ten years? What is your ideal lifestyle? What is essential to this lifestyle for you to feel successful? How do you like to spend your time?
While these concepts may take time to incorporate into your advising, here are a few quick tips:
1. Really good advising takes time. Make sure to reserve enough time and energy to have productive advising meetings.
2. Successful advising is a continuous process. Expect numerous interactions in the classrooms, hallways, over e-mail, and during private meetings. This multiple check-in approach allows for investigation and reflection.
3. Articulate the expectations and responsibilities of advisees and advisors. It is possible you are your advisee’s first advisor. Advisees may not know the reason or meaning for an advisor or appropriate boundaries. As an advisor, determine your expectations and communicate these expectations to your advisees.
4. Offer options to schedule meetings. While walk-in office hours have some benefits, a dedicated time and space allows both advisee and advisor to focus on the task at hand. Offer designated advising timeslots for advisees. Signing-up for timeslots could occur either on a sheet of paper or using a free online tool that automatically syncs to online calendars.
5. If you expect advisees to meet at your office, make sure you tell your advisees where your office is located. Advisees should also know how to contact you if they must change or miss a meeting.
6. Schedule group advising to work with advisees who have similar academic or professional (NOT personal) issues. This will save the advisor time, and the advisees benefit from conversations with students or trainees asking similar questions.
7. Recruit a more advanced student or trainee to meet with advisees about standard advising issues, such as program requirements or course registration. It is effective if this meeting occurs prior to the advisor-advisee meeting, so unanswered questions and clarifications can be provided by the advisor.
8. You do not need to know the answer to everything. Know your limits and your resources. Institutions often have services and professionals trained in handling various student situations. Have their phone numbers or emails readily available so you can connect advisees directly to the assistance they need. Know your responsibilities around state and federally mandated reporting.
Productive and inclusive advising is an opportunity to help and to support students and trainees as they develop their own paths to success. What an amazing perk of being an educator! Happy Advising!
Chambliss DF. How College Works. Harvard University Press, 2014.
Cooper KM, Gin LE, Akeeh B, Clark CE, Hunter JS, Roderick TB, Elliott DB, Gutierrez LA, Mello RM, Pfeiffer LD, Scott RA, Arellano D, Ramirez D, Valdez EM, Vargas C, Velarde K, Zheng Y, Brownell SE. Factors that predict life sciences student persistence in undergraduate research experiences. PLOS ONE 14: e0220186, 2019.
Johnson KMS, Briggs A, Hawn C, Mantina N, Woods BC. Inclusive practices for diverse student populations: Experimental Biology 2017. Adv Physiol Educ 43: 365–372, 2019.
Katie Johnson, Ph.D., is an experienced practitioner and evaluator of inclusive teaching and mentoring practices. Dr. Johnson advises and serves on national STEM education initiatives and committees, working with a diverse network of collaborators. As a Programmatic Improvement Consultant, Dr. Johnson assists institutions and organizations to develop innovative solutions to curricular and assessment challenges. Prior to becoming an independent consultant for Trail Build, LLC, Dr. Johnson was Chair and Associate Professor of Biology at Beloit College. She earned her Ph.D. in the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics at Vanderbilt University and her B.S. from Beloit College. Disclosure: Dr. Johnson serves as an external consultant for the American Physiological Society.
There are numerous studies showing that STEM persistence rates are poor (especially amongst under-represented minority, first-generation, and female students) (1-2). It is also fairly broadly accepted that introductory science and math courses act as a primary barrier to this persistence, with their large class size. There is extensive evidence that first-year seminar courses help improve student outcomes and success, and many of our institutions offer those kinds of opportunities for students (3). Part of the purpose of these courses is to help students develop the skills that they need to succeed in college while also cultivating their sense of community at the university. In my teaching career, I have primarily been involved in courses taken by first-year college students, including mentoring others while they teach first-year courses (4). To help starting to build that sense of community and express the importance of building those college success skills, I like to tell them about how I ended up standing in front of them as Dr. Trimby.
I wasn’t interested in Biology as a field when I started college. I was going to be an Aerospace Engineer and design spaceships or jets, and I went to a very good school with a very good program for doing exactly this. But, college didn’t get off to the best start for me, I wasn’t motivated and didn’t know how to be a successful college student, so my second year of college found me now at my local community college (Joliet Junior College) taking some gen ed courses and trying to figure out what next. I happened to take a Human Genetics course taught by Dr. Polly Lavery. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Genetics or have a particular interest, I just needed the Natural Science credit. Dr. Lavery’s course was active and engaged, and even though it didn’t have a lab associated with it we transformed some E. coli with a plasmid containing GFP and got to see it glow in the dark (which, when it happened almost 20 years ago was pretty freaking cool!). This was done in conjunction with our discussions of Alba the glow-in-the-dark rabbit (5). The course hooked me! I was going to study gene therapy and cure cancer! After that semester, I transferred to Northern Illinois University and changed my major to Biology.
So, why do I bring this up here? When I have this conversation with my undergraduate students, my goal is to remind them that there will be bumps in the road. When we mentor our students, whether it be advisees or students in our classes, it is important to remind them that failure happens. What matters is what you do when things do go sideways. That is really scary for students. Many of our science majors have been extremely successful in the lead up to college, and may have never really failed or even been challenged. What can we do to help our students with this?
First of all, we can build a framework into our courses that supports and encourages students to still strive to improve even if they don’t do well on the first exam. This can include things like having exam wrappers (6) and/or reflective writing assignments that can help students assess their learning process and make plans for future assessments. Helping students develop self-regulated learning strategies will have impacts that semester (7) and likely beyond. In order for students to persevere in the face of this adversity (exhibit grit), there has to be some sort of hope for the future – i.e. there needs to be a reasonable chance for a student to still have a positive outcome in the course. (8) This can include having a lower-stakes exam early in the semester to act as a learning opportunity, or a course grading scale that encourages and rewards improvement over the length of the semester.
Secondly, we can help them to build a growth mindset (9), where challenges are looked forward to and not knowing something or not doing well does not chip away at someone’s self-worth. Unfortunately, you cannot just tell someone that they should have a growth mindset, but there are ways of thinking that can be encouraged in students (10).
Something that is closely tied to having a growth mindset is opening yourself up to new experiences and the potential for failure. In other words being vulnerable (11). Many of us (and our students) choose courses and experiences that we know that we can succeed at, and have little chance of failure. This has the side effect of limiting our experiences. Being vulnerable, and opening up to new experiences is something important to remind students of. This leads to the next goal of reminding students that one of the purposes of college is to gain a broad set of experiences and that for many of us, that will ultimately shape what we want to do, so it is okay if the plan changes – but that requires exploration.
As an educator who was primarily trained in discipline-specific content addressing some of these changes to teaching can be daunting. Fortunately there are many resources available out there. Some of them I cited previously, but additional valuable resources that have been helpful to me include the following:
Teaching and Learning STEM: A Practical Guide. Felder & Brent Eds.
Covers a lot of material, including more information of exam wrappers and other methods for developing metacognitive and self-directed learning skills.
Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty by Lang
Covers a lot relating to student motivation and approaches that can encourage students to take a more intrinsically motivated attitude about their learning.
A case study on growth mindset that also asks students to analyze data and design experiments, which can allow it to address additional course goals.
President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. (2012). Engage to excel: Producing one million additional college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Office of Science and Technology.
Shaw, E., & Barbuti, S. (2010). Patterns of persistence in intended college major with a focus on STEM majors. NACADA Journal, 30(2), 19–34.
Tobolowsky, B. F., & Associates. (2008). 2006 National survey of first-year seminars: Continuing innovations in the collegiate curriculum (Monograph No. 51). Columbia: National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, University of South Carolina.
Wienhold, C. J., & Branchaw, J. (2018). Exploring Biology: A Vision and Change Disciplinary First-Year Seminar Improves Academic Performance in Introductory Biology. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 17(2), ar22.
Christopher Trimby is an Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of Delaware in Newark, DE. He received his PhD in Physiology from the University of Kentucky in 2011. During graduate school he helped out with teaching an undergraduate course, and discovered teaching was the career path for him. After graduate school, Chris spent four years teaching a range of Biology courses at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), after which he moved to University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Institute for Science Education and Community Engagement (WISCIENCE – https://wiscience.wisc.edu/) to direct the Teaching Fellows Program. At University of Delaware, Chris primarily teaches a version of the Introductory Biology sequence that is integrated with General Chemistry and taught in the Interdisciplinary Science Learning Laboratories (ISLL – https://www.isll.udel.edu/). Despite leaving WISCIENCE, Chris continues to work on developing mentorship programs for both undergraduates interested in science and graduate students/post-docs who are interested in science education. Chris enjoys building things in his workshop and hopes to get back into hiking more so he can update his profile pic. .