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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Author order and disorder

Debra Carr has a BSc (Hons) in Materials Science and a PhD in Engineering.

Prior to joining Cranfield University, she was employed by the Ministry of Defence (SCRDE), Imperial College (Mechanical Engineering) and The University of Otago (Clothing and Textile Sciences).

Debra is a Chartered Engineer, a Fellow of The Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining and a Fellow of The Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences.

In 2012, Debra was a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellow. Debra’s research interests include personal protective equipment design and testing, and behind armour wound ballistics.


I’m a materials engineer specialising in textile science. After I finished my PhD, I first worked in Government and now I’ve been an academic for nearly 20 years.

I love working with my research students (MSc and PhD) and I try to give them as many opportunities to publish as possible.

When a student first approaches me, I talk about where their work might be published – should it be a journal, or conference proceedings? I encourage them to think about their work as publishable and plan the work right from the start for publication. I think this is as important for my students who are completing a taught Master of Science (MSc) that includes a 3-month research project resulting in a dissertation, as for my PhD students who are in a 3-year program.

Most of my personal research projects, and those that my research students conduct, are for customers who have a real-world problem (i.e. most of the work is applied in nature). Some projects cannot be published due to confidentiality and I let my students know this ASAP in the process. I always ensure we meet with the client.

As far as I am concerned, if an article is written from a thesis by either the student or me, then they are first author on the publication and I am usually second author as their supervisor. My boss and my institution (I believe) expect me to be second author. Obviously, these articles contribute significantly to my career progression as well as theirs and I have benefited from my students with respect to promotion. Other authors on the articles might be another research student or a staff member who has helped (academic or technical), and an industrial supervisor or a sponsor (particularly if the work was originally their idea – so an acknowledgement of their intellectual property).

Breakfast queue by Ross Strahan | www.flickr.com/photos/ross_strachan | Shared via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Breakfast queue by Ross Strahan | http://www.flickr.com/photos/ross_strachan | Shared via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Do it because you can

In-between landscape (scale of 1:1): mangroves near Wynnum, looking towards Stradbroke. Megan McPherson, work in progress: Relief printed etching, rice paper, hand coloured with pigment ink, archival glues. Approximately 280 x 500 x 20 cms (hxwxd) (Undulating surface)

In-between landscape (scale of 1:1): mangroves near Wynnum, looking towards Stradbroke. Megan McPherson, work in progress: Relief printed etching, rice paper, hand coloured with pigment ink, archival glues. Approximately 280 x 500 x 20 cms (hxwxd) (Undulating surface)

I tried to let this particular white-hot rage die down. But it won’t.

So, hopefully, here’s a constructive post built from the foundations of my infuriation.

I heard a researcher talking about how they balanced their academic work life a while ago, and it made me very angry.

Basically, they said that anything that wasn’t clearly noted as part of their workload, they wouldn’t bother doing.

The implication being that anyone who did ‘extra’ or ‘unnecessary’ things were total mugs because those things weren’t getting them ahead in their careers – therefore, not worth doing. They considered the idea of communicating research (and social media as a whole) as a fad in which only the gullible would indulge their time.

They also seemed smug, and it’s always hard for me to like those who seem smug.

I agree that people shouldn’t fall on their swords and slog away at little recognised, exploitative roles or over-the-workload-limit tasks and responsibilities. I’m not saying that academics must carry the weight of all that needs to be done, because we know that it’s always already too much.

What made me so angry was that this researcher wasn’t talking about solidarity with colleagues in the face of workload adversity. They were totally focused on what would be worthwhile doing for their own career and promotion prospects; everything else was secondary, if not worthless. Read more of this post

Keeping referees sweet

Cupcake salvation (Photo by Fooi-ling Khoo)

Cupcake salvation (Photo by Fooi-ling Khoo)

Choosing the referees to list on a CV and job applications can be a complex business, particularly when you’re starting out.

You want a balance of voices who could credibly recommend you.

Perhaps someone who has been your academic supervisor, an examiner, a senior colleague who knows you and your work well enough, someone you’ve RA’d for?

For a non-academic job, maybe – just maybe – that first round of referees might include the boss of the fish and chip shop you worked at over the summer.

For academic jobs, there are other considerations in the mix, too: Should you have at least one international referee? One internal referee from your current position? Will it look odd if you don’t include any of your supervisors as referees? What if Professor Z on the hiring committee sees that you used Dr X and not Associate Professor Y…?

After navigating the rocky straits of choosing and securing your referees, you need to ensure that they’re on board with you for the duration of your job hunt(s).

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Back from the research fringe

Beware the Unstable Cliff Edge (Photo taken by Oanh Tran)

“Beware the Unstable Cliff Edge” (Photo taken by Oanh Tran)

Do your peers go around talking about how that colleague is ‘useless’ or a ‘lost cause’ when it comes to research?

How prevalent is the sentiment that – if you’re not a proven, grant-landing researcher – you’re not worthwhile having in the contemporary university system?

This has been something I’ve been wanting to blog about for a while. A recent anecdote from a colleague spurred me to consolidate my thinking about these exclusionary ideas surrounding research productivity and notions of staff worth.

The Anecdote:

A colleague told me about a mid-career academic in their department. This academic had never landed a significant competitive grant, wasn’t publishing very well (standard of journal papers was questionable) or consistently (lots of ‘revise and resubmits’ in the top drawer that never made it to the next stage). He was bitter and defensive about his research track-record, often hostile to feedback, and he appeared to withdraw from broader faculty research life.

He was considered a lost cause. Someone who would never be much chop in the research game.

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Seven issues in community-based research practice – Part 2

Daniel Reeders writes social marketing and public health strategy for a living.  He writes a blog, Bad Blood, about stigma and public health, and tweets as @onekind, for fun.

He has a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Laws (Melbourne) and is currently enrolled in a Masters in Public Health at a university he prefers not to name in case he decides to write about it.


Safety first (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Safety first (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

As mentioned in Part 1, these posts are a personal account based on things that went awry in my experience of community-based research. I have listed a couple of dot points on practical steps readers might consider to manage the risks I encountered, in case you are contemplating or currently working in a community-based research role.

I’m also keen to hear other experiences and perspectives of this form of research practice, either in the comments or by e-mail. A quick note: I never write or blog about my current place of work, and I’d encourage commenters to de-identify your own places of work.

Points 1-3 cover supervision, ethics and discipline, and they appear in Part 1.

4. Ownership

This is an extremely vexed issue in community-based research practice. In a community organisation the board will have a policy on who can speak on the organisation’s behalf. This is typically restricted to senior management.

Senior managers in some organisations misuse these policies, and require their staff to publish articles and submit conference abstracts in the senior managers’ names.

In this situation, working in that role will damage your career by creating a publication gap, and it will doubtless corrode your motivation as well.

  • Prevent: negotiate before starting – Who owns the work and end products? Who can put their name to it? What happens when you leave? Can you publish from it?

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Seven issues in community-based research practice – Part 1

Daniel Reeders writes social marketing and public health strategy for a living.  He writes a blog, Bad Blood, about stigma and public health, and tweets as @onekind, for fun.

He has a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Laws (Melbourne) and is currently enrolled in a Masters in Public Health at a university he prefers not to name in case he decides to write about it.


Safety first (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Safety first (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

I got started in community-based research more or less by accident. I had always used interviews and focus groups as a social marketer in HIV prevention, but I could see neglected issues in my field of practice that seemed to warrant in-depth investigation.

They involved personally catastrophic but fairly uncommon events in small groups, such as HIV infection among gay and bisexual men from migrant and refugee backgrounds.

Survey and statistical methods can’t get much purchase on rare events in small groups of vulnerable people, but funders and service providers were nonetheless waiting for what they considered ‘real’ research to quantify the issue before taking action.

I wanted to break this impasse, even if it meant producing research that doesn’t count as ‘evidence’. Something is better than nothing, right?*

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