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What to do if I have a bad mentor?

Postby oiziz » Tue Dec 05, 2006 12:59 am

I understand that Terik Daly mentioned in a past thread that:

What impresses a judge is the student who goes into a lab, learns the techniques and protocols s/he will be using, and then does the work his or herself under the supervision of the mentor.

I have been working alongside my mentor, who is a graduate student, for the past year have learned all the techniques and protocols for experimentation, but I haven't felt that my work is completely individualistic. It feels more like a group project. We hypothesize together, analyze the data together, and solve problems together. But sometimes I feel more like an assistant than a researcher. My mentor tells me to do things, and doesn't explain until I ask. Am I worrying too much? Is it common that the professor assigns a high school student to work alongside a grad student? Or does the high school student have their own individual research? How independent were past ISEF winners? Did they do it independently and asked their mentors for help when they needed it?

The reason I am concerned is because I want to take the research in another direction. I am measuring how a fuel cell electrolyte deforms, and I want to apply those discoveries into engineering a composite without deformation flaws. I already done background reading and have planned out what direction I want to go, but my mentor hasn't been too supportive.

I don't know what to do now. Do I still work alongside with him and measure other compounds or propose this idea to my professor and try "to work under his supervision?" Will that be too bold?

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Postby tdaly » Tue Dec 05, 2006 9:09 am


First off a few questions. Did you find this mentor (grad student/prof) on your own, or were you hooked up with them by someone else (e.g. a summer program, a colleague of your parents, etc.)?

Let me congratulate on learning the techniques and protocols for what you are doing. I've seen way to many students present science fair projects about what they watched someone do in a lab. The more hands-on experience you have, the better.

In the real world, research is usually done in collaboration with one or more people. (If you look at papers in some scientific journals, you will find very few with only one author.) Working with someone is part of science in the real world. The fact that you are learning this now will put you way ahead of other students when you enter the "real world." Groups are an intrinsic part of the scientific process.

Professional scientists (like those judging at ISEF and other high-level fairs) understand how real-world research works. What you need to do is tell the judges what YOU did, how YOU contributed to the project, etc. If the conclusions you draw are the product of both you and your mentor's thinking, say so. Emphasize what you did, but give credit where credit is due.

Always ask your mentor why s/he wants you to do something. The judges at high-level fairs will grill you on how and why you used the procedures you did. You need to know your procedures and any equipment that you use like the back of your hand.

Talk to the prof about where you want to take the research. There is nothing to lose by talking to him/her. Be polite, but be direct.
All the best,

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Postby ChrisG » Tue Dec 05, 2006 2:06 pm

From your description, it does not sound to me like you have a "bad mentor". It sounds like you have had a productive working relationship (working together on hypotheses and data analyses), and now you are encountering an issue that often arises between students and supervisors, whether it is a high school student working with a graduate student, or a graduate student working with a professor. Supervisors and students often have different ideas about what will be an intereresting topic to study, and they may also have different expectations about what sort of work and guidance will take place. This can lead to some misunderstandings and tension. It is very important not to blame your mentor for the problem, but rather, use clear communication to find the best possible solution for everyone. You don't want to burn any bridges.

Have you told your mentor exactly what you want to do, and asked for their feedback about (1) whether they think it is a good research idea, and (2) whether they have the time/ willingness to help you complete that project? If so, what did they say? Don't leave anything open to interpretation - make sure that you understand their critique of the project and their willingness to guide you through it.

As Terik said, there's no harm in telling the prof about your research ideas. If everyone agrees that it is a feasible project, but the mentor does not have time/ willingness to help, there is no harm in asking if there is anyone else who could possibly supervise you with the project. In my experience, it is rare for a professor to work directly with a high school intern - most profs don't even have time to work adequately with their own graduate students - but maybe yours is an exception.

Let us know how it goes!

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