What a student wants to tell you about research mentorship

Mary Barber is an undergraduate student at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.

She studies Chemistry and English Literature and spends her days shifting her brain from microbiology and organic chemistry lectures to reading Proust and Nabokov to running experiments in the lab.

Mary is a funded research intern at Vanderbilt University Medical Centre and works in the department of Cardiovascular Medicine. 

Her current passion is using human induced-pluripotent stem cells differentiated into cardiomyocytes to understand how cancer treatment perpetuates heart disease.

One day, when she grows up, Mary hopes to be a physician researcher, treat patients with heart problems, write books, and do yoga every day. She tweets from @MaryC_Barber.


Photo by Tseen Khoo

Photo by Tseen Khoo

In high school, I wanted to be a makeup artist. Before that, I wanted to be an architect.

Somewhere in the midst of my adolescent ambitions, an excellent chemistry teacher told me I had real talent in chemistry, brought me scholarship applications, and guided me towards a career in the biomedical sciences.

Five years later, I am a third-year Chemistry student at my university, slated to take biophysical chemistry, biochemistry, and physics in the upcoming fall semester.

If it wasn’t for good mentorship, I would undoubtedly be a different person today and wouldn’t have found the opportunity to study science and conduct biomedical research. I would not have found my calling. Excellent, intentional mentorship has been instrumental in guiding me through the jungle-like journey of choosing a career.

I owe much of my scientific opportunities and success to those mentors who have taken special interest in me as a scientific thinker and developed me into a good question-asker and answer-seeker (i.e. a scientist). Research mentors are crucial in counseling students through the scientific process and training them to be the next generation of people who push the field forward.

Most readers of the Research Whisperer have likely moved beyond my training and scope of expertise, but I would like to offer some perspectives on what a desirable and effective mentor looks like to the maturing student researcher.
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Do I have to move up the ladder?

Photo by Geran de Klerk | unsplash.com

Photo by Geran de Klerk | unsplash.com

My last post about sharing hard truths in the academy seemed to really strike a chord, particularly with early career researchers who confirmed that hearing the truth was better than being placated with false assurances. People contributed some great comments: well considered and sometimes sad.

One of these comments, from Megan, included an interesting question:

I have one, maybe slightly odd, question. I did a PhD so I could work in research, not to scale the heights of academia. I love my job but I love other aspects of my life just as much (!) and am not keen to have to put my job above all else as it seems is necessary to progress (from what I have observed anyway). Basically I would be more than happy to keep working as a level B, say, on different projects and feel confident enough in my general skills (I had a career before academia) that I could do this. I also know that senior academics need good people at that level to actually deliver their projects.

However it seems to me that staying at the one level is not possible as a career path – the institution kind of forces you to look and move ‘upward’ because of the need / desire for high performing researchers. And while I know some projects have non-academic project managers I’m not as interested in that as would still like to use my academic skills / write a bit and so on. Just wondering if anyone had any thoughts on this.

This prompted so many thoughts that I had to write this post! My caveat for this is that it is drawn from my own experiences – I would be very interested to hear from anyone who knows of research into promotion patterns and aspirations in academia.

So, where to begin?

The short answer is that you could have a career as a Level B academic. If you manage to land a continuing Level B position (title of ‘lecturer’, 2nd step up from entry-level continuing academic appointments), you could – if you wanted to – stay at that level for as long as you like. That is, as long as you’re not made redundant by your institution, or ‘fail’ to do your basic job as an academic (in which case, you may then be ‘performance managed’ out of your role).

If you’re fulfilling the job of a lecturer (and probably beyond), and just don’t ever feel like applying for promotion, this becomes interesting. I’m writing a chapter for a book on ‘academic wellbeing’ that focuses on the very question: what it means when you know that fighting for your work/life balance means a direct compromise of promotion chances and track-record building opportunities. Read more of this post

Learning from others

Thanks to the Australasian Research Management Society (ARMS) and the US National Council of University Research Administrators (NCURA) for their fellowship, which made my trip possible. Thanks also to Kirsten Yehl for making my trip a fantastic success.


Jonathan looking nervous, as he holds a NURAP sign in front of a poster that says 'Chicago'

Jonathan at the Northwestern University Research Administration Professionals meeting

In September – October last year, I travelled from my base at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia to Northwestern University, Chicago, as an ARMS / NCURA Fellow. I spent time with the research administrators in the School of Engineering and the Institute of Public Health.

During that time, I learnt that there were a lot of similarities in working with academics in both our countries. I also learnt the value of reflecting on my own professional practice by discussing it with people who do very different things.

Here are a few of the things that contrasted with my everyday Australian experiences:

Scope: I was constantly reminded that the scope of research between our two institutions was so different. At one of my meetings, a Northwestern research administrator was thrilled that one of her researchers had just been awarded the Nobel Prize. That’s not going to happen to me anytime soon!

Northwestern attracts US$620 million (A$850 million) annually in sponsored research. That’s almost A$3 million more than the Australian Research Council. In addition, they have US$10.5 billion in endowments and other trust funds. This difference in scale leads to a difference in understanding of what research can be undertaken, a difference in how grant applications are developed, and a difference in how the resulting research funding is scrutinised.

Attitude: The Research Administrators at Northwestern are there to make it as easy as possible for their researchers to apply for funding and to do their research. That is (or should be) the same the world over. However, it is an important thing to keep in mind, especially when we are in the thick of things. Read more of this post

Truth be told

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 8 June 2017 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


It’s safe to say that the funding and employment prospects for researchers in Australia are poor.

When I first drafted this piece, I wanted to say that the prospects were ‘challenging’, then realised that this is the way we have come to talk about—and cloak—the many stark inequities in our system. The circumstances are not challenging in the sense of being a series of personal adversities that must be overcome.

The perfect storm of scarce career pathways, highly metricised researcher valuation, and diminishing funds for research mean that early career researchers work in an area that is broken in many ways. There are options—good, bad, and often precarious. The challenges are systemic and institutional, with pressure brought to bear on the individual as a consequence. Read more of this post

What makes a strong rejoinder

A quick opening note on terminology: I use ‘assessor’ to refer to experts who read and review research grant applications, then provide comments into the final decision-making process. Terminology varies a bit between funders, and between countries. We’re not talking about journal reviewers, although some of the advice that follows may also apply there.


Fierce! Photo by Vincent van der Pas, taken at the Tokyo National Museum | www.flickr.com/photos/archetypefotografie

Fierce! Photo by Vincent van der Pas, taken at the Tokyo National Museum | http://www.flickr.com/photos/archetypefotografie

In 2012, with Adam Golberg of Cash for Questions (UK), we wrote ‘Rational responses to referees, our advice on preparing your rejoinder or response to comments on your grant application. It was good advice then, and it’s good advice now.

As my applicants are busy writing their responses, this seemed like a good time to build on ‘Rational responses to referees’.

This post provides some advice on the specifics that I want to see in a strong response, and how you might deal with some tricky situations. When your response goes back to funding body, it will be considered along with hundreds or even thousands of other applications.

In such a situation, you want to make it as easy as possible for the reader (the funders) to understand your response.

White space

I’ve seen a draft that was a wall of text, 5,000 characters long. There were no paragraphs breaks and no white space. It was exhausting to look at.

Be kind to your reader – cherish the white space. Put white space between paragraphs. Indent first lines. Use formatting (if the system allows it – the ARC doesn’t).

All the normal rules of civilised writing still apply, even if you have a lot to say and a severe limit on how many characters you can include. Invite your reader to engage with your text. Read more of this post

I don’t need money to do research

There are some fields in academia that don’t need funding for research to happen.

Sure, I know no research is ‘free’ to produce and share – there’s the salary of the researchers, organisational infrastructure (e.g. tech, desk-space), libraries, and the costs of presenting at conferences for a start.

But to do the research itself doesn’t always need a lot of money.

It may need just a little bit of money or, sometimes, none at all. It does always need time, and that’s the commodity that’s probably in shortest supply.

I come from a humanities (specifically, literary studies) background. My PhD research could have all happened through me finding the time to sit and do a metric tonne of reading and synthesising of materials that I access through my university library and on the internet. I can do my literary studies research and writing without needing to talk to a single other person or having to travel.

It’s not just the humanities. There are many other fields of research where buckets of cash are not what it takes to make the work happen.

I know it’s the kind of thing you’re not meant to say. I have been publicly shamed for saying it in work meetings in other professional incarnations. When colleagues have talked about it, they get shushed – sometimes seriously – because naming such a situation runs counter to the dizzy fiesta of funding that our institutions and research sector crave. Read more of this post

Get savvy about online impact

Dennis Relojo is the Founder of Psychreg and is the Editor-in-Chief of the new Psychreg Journal of Psychology.

He serves as an editorial board member for a number of peer-reviewed journals. Dennis holds a Master’s degree in Psychology from the University of Hertfordshire.

His research interests include educational psychology and special education.

You can connect with him through Twitter @DennisRelojo and his website.


Online media provides a host of possibilities for disseminating research. Including video clips in journal articles, for example, can really enhance traditional research outputs. Unfortunately, at the moment online media is often viewed as an accessory to research, rather than as an important element in a unified research lifecycle.

Photo by Markus Spiske | unsplash.com

Photo by Markus Spiske | unsplash.com

The way that people find and consume information is constantly changing: from traditional (i.e. watching television) through Web searching (think Google) to digital (mobile apps). These changes are having some big effects on research, as well as everywhere else.

Traditionally, researchers disseminated their work by attending conferences, publishing in journals (both academic and industry) and giving lectures (both to the public and to students). Online media now provides more channels and a bigger space to disseminate our work: through both general and academic social networking services, blogposts, podcasts and vlogs.

We have a wider reach for public engagement and greater control over our message. It also provides us with opportunities to do things differently.

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