Tips for mentoring a diverse student group

The Source
By: undefined, Wed Sep 27 2023

Earlier this year, Springer Nature published its first diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) report, titled “Insights into diversity, equity & inclusion in the global research community”. The report examines how diversity, equity, and inclusion are understood in the research community, identifying barriers to achieving  greater DEI, and highlighting opportunities for change. In this new blog series, early career researchers who participated in the report, share their own personal stories and views about DEI in academia, and ways to further advance diversity and inclusion.

Written by Maria Misiura

Over the span of my career, I have had the privilege of mentoring more than 15 undergraduates. I work at a minority-serving institution in an urban environment with a diverse student body. I have mentored an older student who needed technological training, an international minority student who was ineligible for federal funding, a student that experienced unwanted sexual advances from her primary mentor, and students of all ages and races that serve as primary caregivers for a member of their family. Here I share pieces of advice that mentors may find particularly useful when working with both undergraduate and graduate minority and non-traditional students with unique life circumstances and experiences. 

Communicate reciprocal expectations early and often

When I take new mentees, the first question I ask them is what they seek to gain from lab experience. I use this question to not only create a training plan, but also to gauge what they know about scientific career paths. Some students know with certainty that they wish to apply to specific graduate school programs (i.e. medical school or clinical psychology), while others, undecided about their career goals, use research experience to determine if they want to pursue an academic career. Students may not be aware that, as scientists, we are required to present posters at conferences, so they may not have that goal in mind. Communicate what you want from your mentees (i.e. “you need to present at one conference per year” ) so they are able to gauge whether this career path is right for them, and so that you can identify strengths and areas of improvement.

Proactively discuss funding

Many of mentees pay their own way for school and living expenses with little familial financial support. Small changes to income, especially for PhD students, can increase financial hardships for students already living on a restricted budget.  I remember one occasion in which a graduate advisor nonchalantly mentioned that my pay may be reduced by $5000 due to budget constraints. There were no issues whatsoever with my job performance, the pay cut was a result of timing. I held back tears while I tried to explain that while $5000 was not much money for someone with a $200,000 salary, a 20% reduction in my pay would severely impact my finances. When my advisor suggested that I take out more loans to cover the reduction, it frustrated me because I did not feel my advisor showed me empathy. This experience inspired me to proactively communicate with my mentees about their funding, and to seek out opportunities to increase their pay whenever possible.  

Consider the values and constraints of your mentee’s life circumstances, even if different from your own

When I began graduate school, I clearly stated that I could not move for my career. Relocation for my family was never an option because the breadwinner of our household (not me!) owned a local small business. When I had conversations with my advisor about my career goals, she would tailor suggestions based on these values. She would not pull any punches and would clearly communicate that my career options would be limited by location, but that I could still carve out a success story if I kept eyes open for unique opportunities. I appreciated the fact that she was honest and upfront about my self-imposed limitations, but that she also supported my decision. Many of my mentees have non-traditional family and financial constraints and attempting to force students to conform to the traditional academic career adage of “career first, life later” can strain mentee relationships. Clearly state how constraints may affect their career, but be flexible in your recommendations and promotion of specific activities in light of these circumstances. 

Foster a sense of personal responsibility

Many of my mentees do not come from wealthy families, are from minoritized groups, and have experienced discrimination in their blossoming academic careers. Instead of using these factors to justify professional inaction, I want to empower my mentees to take charge of their own career and use painful experiences as learning opportunities. Together we develop strategies to cope with adversity including digesting, rather than avoiding, feelings of sadness, anger, and anxiety. Shantideva, a Buddhist scholar, once wrote “Where would I find enough leather to cover the entire surface of the earth? But with leather soles beneath my feet, it’s as if the whole world has been covered.” I echo this sentiment to my mentees. We cannot restrict speech or ideas that may offend us, or radically dismantle cultural and economic barriers overnight. But we can implement evidence-based and culturally informed interventions. With my mentees, I can act as their academic cobbler and help them build shoes of resilience with which they can use to summit their career aspirations.

Dr. Maria Misiura is a post-doctoral researcher at Georgia State University in Atlanta, GA. She uses neuroimaging to understand the role of modifiable risk factors of brain and vascular health on dementia risk. She enjoys mentoring students and organizing neuroscience outreach events in the community. 

Unlock the full insights of Springer Nature’s “Insights into diversity, equity and inclusion in the global research community” report by reading and downloading the paper.

P_Maria Misiura blog image © Springer Nature 2023
About the Author

Dr. Maria Misiura is a post-doctoral researcher at Georgia State University in Atlanta, GA. She uses neuroimaging to understand the role of modifiable risk factors of brain and vascular health on dementia risk. She enjoys mentoring students and organizing neuroscience outreach events in the community. 

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