PhD students can benefit from non-academic mentors’ outside perspectives

By Derrick Rancourt

Original source

A mentor is a professional who acclimates a protégé into a profession. In the Bottegas of Renaissance Florence, upstart Leonardo Da Vinci pulverized Tuscan stone and collected eggs to make tempera for mentor Andrea del Verrocchio, who might allow Da Vinci to assist Michelangelo with his paintings.

Although this model was adopted by the research laboratories of the Enlightenment through to postmodernism, it is now faltering.

With less than 20 per cent of PhD students being able to transition into academia, the PhD is no longer a foremost career entree into the professoriate. Most PhD students no longer work alongside people whose career paths they will follow. In light of this, universities must do more to support non-academic mentorships for PhD students.

Career confidence

Some of my research focuses on the value of students procuring non-academic mentors through informational interviews. By embedding informational interviewing into curriculum, I have studied how students can learn to explore non-academic careers, connect with working professionals, seek advice and cultivate professional, mentor-protégé relationships. Through this process, students learn the tacit knowledge they often are missing, showing substantial improvements in their career confidence and well-being.

Because linear career progression is ending, forcing people to change jobs frequently, students should be taught skills to adapt to uncertain labour markets. Hence, it is important to teach students how to investigate, reflect on and test potential careers.

The concept of a “future professional self” helps expand a student’s aspirations. Career reflection fosters innovative thinking about prospects, helping to build strategies and expectations that make ambitions real. Once students know what they want to do, they are more inspired to work towards reaching their goals.

My daughter, Kate, also recently shared with me her experience as a non-academic mentor in Dalhousie University’s clinical psychology PhD program. She has also shaped my perspectives on how non-academic mentors offer PhD students the opportunity to develop meaningful perspectives and connections.

Two women sit in an office with laptops having a discussion.
Career reflection fosters innovative thinking about prospects, helping to build strategies and expectations that make ambitions real. (Christina Wocintechchat/Unsplash), CC BY

Competitive ethic

PhD students who perceive a narrowing scope of opportunities as they advance may become disillusioned with their thesis work, thus limiting their productivity and increasing their completion time.

PhD students are among the highest-achieving individuals in our society, which can be both a blessing and a curse. A focus on achievement is generally a necessary academic quality, as culture establishes researchers (and trainees by default) as “entrepreneurs” responsible for their own survival. A survival-of-the-fittest mentality has arisen in academia with the tremendous surplus of talent in the professor pool.

While competition helps to drive the university research agenda forward, we have found when we talk with current and recent PhD students and professors that this competition undermines the well-being of graduate students and faculty alike.

For many, the PhD becomes a bad deal because they do not see (and are not shown) a way out of a horrible situation — or they fear the sunk cost. PhD students often struggle to know how to navigate these situations, as the philosophy that guides their approach is often “work harder, and you will succeed.”

Strain on professor-protégé relationship

Yet, since the bare facts of the job market mean that even if PhD students demonstrate an outstanding work ethic, many will have to leave academia in search of other careers. This places tremendous stress upon the mentor-protégé relationship between PhD students and professors.

Because our universities have not systematically embedded entrepreneurship and career planning into doctoral studies, it’s not surprising if most professors believe they cannot acclimate their trainees into a profession outside of academia, like industry or government. Worse yet, some professors believe it’s not their responsibility.

A professor’s very survival may be dependent on the productivity of their PhD students. Many professors buffer their own careers by securing students’ research help with their own publications, while de-emphasizing pursuits that can better prepare students for their own futures such as entrepreneurship, teaching, outreach or internships.

A young man and an older man chat in front of a bookcase with a laptop.
Working harder is not the answer to securing future employment for PhD students. (Shutterstock)

Perfect storm for frustration, health issues

The above factors generate a perfect storm for the development and/or exacerbation of mental health problems among graduate students. Students with a propensity for achievement find themselves in a culture that narrowly defines success, a career landscape that makes it nearly impossible to achieve this success and a profound lack of support given the challenges of navigating new opportunities after graduate school.

Combined with concerns of not knowing how to transition to the non-academic workforce, supervisor criticism and/or neglect may contribute to “locus of control” problems wherein students do not feel they have control over the events that influence their lives. Research shows that such perceptions of loss of control in students can contribute to the onset of mental health issues.

The primary consequence of this mentorship approach is that it undermines students’ self-confidence, leaving many to question their self worth, as though the inability to secure work as a professor is a personal failure. Non-academic mentors may be a means of mitigating the effects of this problem.

Empathy, healthy perspectives

In addition to providing mentorship around envisioning and navigating the transition, non-academic mentors are uniquely positioned to offset the potentially damaging effects of academic mentorship on students’ self-confidence. This may be especially true of non-academic mentors who themselves completed a PhD and transitioned into successful careers beyond academia.

Non-academic mentors, especially those familiar with university culture, can provide empathy, validation and healthy perspectives. Such experiences can protect students by showing them that self-worth is not contingent on achievement, self-care is not a sign of laziness and new experiences add value to one’s life.

They can also offer alternative points of view: that success is broadly defined, academic expectations are unrealistic and failure is necessary for development. These can act as a balm for times when students’ confidence or self-worth is otherwise challenged or bruised by academia.

Kate Rancourt co-authored this article.

Richard N. Mitchell, MD, PhD

Dr. Rick Mitchell officially assumed the role of President of the ASIP on July 1, 2020. In a normal year, Dr. Mitchell would have received his Presidential Gavel at the ASIP Business Meeting during the 2020 Annual Meeting (scheduled for San Diego in April 2020). Given the COVID-19-related cancellation of Experimental Biology 2020, we planned to have outgoing President Dr. Dani Zander to pass the gavel to Dr. Mitchell during the PISA 2020 meeting in Boston in November. However, that meeting will be virtual (once again due to COVID-19), eliminating the opportunity to have the gavel officially passed to Dr. Mitchell. So, we shipped Dr. Mitchell’s Presidential Gavel to his home in Massachusetts. Dr. Mitchell’s term as President will end on June 30, 2021. Prior to that time, he will preside over the Virtual and Interactive #PISA2020 meeting and the 2021 Annual Meeting of the ASIP during Experimental Biology 2021 Virtual. On behalf of all the members of the ASIP, a belated congratulations to Dr. Rick Mitchell on becoming the President of the ASIP.

ASIP Member Spotlight – Richard N. Mitchell, MD, PhD

Pathologists Fighting COVID-19 – Sally Davis

K-State Assistant Professor of Experimental Pathology, Dr. A. Sally Davis, an ASIP member and HCS Councilor, will lead USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture Rapid Response project “Translating SARS-CoV-2 Research Into Practical Solutions For The Meat And Poultry Processing Industry” to find scientific solutions to protect meat and poultry plant workers and their surrounding communities from the spread of COVID-19.

The research will focus on analysis of the presence and longevity of infectious SARS-CoV-2 on a variety of surfaces under industry realistic environmental conditions, analyze efficacy of current sanitation and disinfection approaches and where needed development of new strategies and guidelines. This transdisciplinary research project will merge virology, applied food science research and extension approaches, as well as applied mathematics risk assessment techniques in order to specifically address the needs of the meat and poultry industry while filling gaps in our broader knowledge about the virus. Read More below:

Kansas State University

Monday, Sept. 14, 2020 Kansas State University researchers involved in a U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded project to protect meat plant workers and their surrounding communities from the spread of COVID-19. From left: Randy Phebus, Sally Davis, Valentina Trinetta, Sara Gragg and Daniel Vega. Not pictured are Jeanette Thurston, Erin Schirtzinger and Yunjeong Kim.

USDA-NIFA Grants Nearly $14 Million for Rapid Response to Help U.S. Universities Find Scientific Solutions Amid Pandemic

KANSAS CITY, MO, September 9, 2020 – To keep science discovery, innovation, and education moving forward, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) developed a series of COVID-19 Rapid Response funding opportunities targeted to the most critical issues facing university researchers, small businesses and consumers across America during the pandemic.

Bench-to-Bedside: How Basic and Clinical Scientists can work to improve drug safety and efficacy

Here is your daily, non-COVID, non-US election, non-massive world ending disaster post for the day. It’s nice to get something like this these days.

If you look at the common pathway of drug development, you will notice something like this: Pre-clinical -> Phase I -> Phase II -> Phase II -> Phase IV. Without going into too many details the phases are described as so: Pre-clinical is experimental development with testing in laboratory animals. Phase I is a small batch of human volunteers (typically healthy or within a small target population). Phase II is a larger batch to improve therapeutic safety and determine dosing ranges. Phase III is larger target populations to further determine safety and efficacy. Phase IV involves post-market surveillance after the drug is approved from success in Phase III.

Interestingly, this “classical” paradigm of drug development leaves out the ever important need to bring a drug to Phase 0 trials. Phase 0 occurs between the pre-clinical phase and the initiation of Phase I clinical trials. Phase 0 clinical trials can occur at a single institution and typically recruit 10-15 volunteers to receive micro-doses of the new drug in order to confirm the drug’s safety, bioavailability, and half-life. Interestingly enough, this Phase 0 portion of the drug development timeline is typically skipped for direct entrance into Phase I trials. Why is this? I believe the basic science field can aid in this transition by being actively involved in Phase 0 clinical trials prior to sending a drug off to Phase I.

Bringing basic scientists into the clinic might sound like a dangerous mix between egos, but in-fact might help to improve the synergy between the clinical and experimental worlds. Merck, Novartis, and Pfizer are three companies that adapted the the Phase 0 trial into their regular practice since its first designation in 2006. It is here that we can see basic scientists benefiting the bench-to-bedside effort and enter the clinic and ensure the proper translation of a drug from the experimental to clinical.


Stay tuned for information about another ASIP Trainee Virtual Hangout! Be on the lookout for more information later this month!


PISA 2020 is going virtual and registration/abstract submission is now open! Find information at the PISA 2020 website!

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