While conducting investigations, researchers often assume the added role of mentors to trainees.* The mentor-trainee relationship is complex and brings into play potential conflicts. How much time—training time for the mentor, research time for the trainee—should each devote to the other? Who gets credit for ideas that take shape during the course of a shared experiment? Who owns the results? When does a trainee become an independent researcher?
The essential elements of a productive mentor-trainee relationship are difficult to codify into rules or guidelines, leaving most of the decisions about responsible mentoring to the individuals involved. Common sense suggests that good mentoring should begin with:
a clear understanding of mutual responsibilities
a commitment to maintain a productive and supportive research environment
proper supervision and review, and
an understanding that the main purpose of the relationship is to prepare trainees to become successful researchers
Understandings and agreements, however, will count for little if they are not backed up by firm commitments to make a relationship work.
Knowing the importance of personal commitments, researchers should carefully consider what responsibilities they have to trainees before they take on the essential task of training new researchers. Trainees, in turn, should be we aware of their responsibilities to mentors before accepting a position in a laboratory or program.
* The term “trainee” is used here to refer to anyone learning to be a researcher under an established researcher’s supervision. This includes principally graduate students and postdoctoral fellows (postdocs), but may also include undergraduate and high school students working on research projects or junior research faculty, research scientists, and research staff.