Working with an academic mentor can be a challenge. The inherent power dynamics of the mentor/mentee relationship, often enhanced by generational differences and the high-stakes nature of career development, are virtually guaranteed to create conflict at some time within the relationship. Communication in all forms is key to preventing and overcoming those conflicts.

And now we add another dimension to the academic mentoring relationship—the importance of written products. Many of us went into STEM thinking something along the lines of, “I’m good at math/science, I’m not good at writing. But that’s okay, I won’t have to write that much!” Next comes the shock of discovering that the key to exiting graduate school is to write. And not just to write, but to be trained to write in long form, in an unfamiliar genre (see my colleague’s excellent discussion of academic genre), by another person who may also have never considered themself a writer. Here are a few things that I have learned in my time as a PhD student. I’m not an expert and not every strategy will work for everyone, but I hope that you can find some ideas here that may resonate with you and help you improve the way you communicate with your mentor.

How I Structure Meetings

When I first started grad school, I would go into a meeting ready to discuss a few things, let my mentor lead the discussion, get distracted by her chosen conversation topics, and later leave with most of my questions unanswered. I learned many useful things in those meetings, but I knew that I could have learned more, stayed on topic, and made my meetings more efficient if I would stop forgetting what I wanted to say. 

One day I grabbed a notepad and wrote some questions and updates that I wanted to share with my mentor. I brought it with me to my next meeting and checked off topics as we discussed them. Over time as I grew comfortable with my new strategy, I found the courage to talk about the tough things: “I’m feeling like I don’t know enough about this topic, but I can’t even begin to understand what these papers are talking about,” or “I’m stuck trying to figure out how to structure this discussion.” By coming to my meetings with specific questions, thoughts, and feelings, I was better able to articulate my needs and guide the discussions. I started to see my mentor more as a partner and a guide in my scientific journey than an autocratic ruler holding tight to the power to either allow me to graduate or keep me here forever. She also started to acknowledge my technique, starting meetings with, “what’s on the list today?” Now, she lets me lead almost as often as she does. We both get to discuss what we’ve been thinking about lately, and I’m moving toward becoming an independent scientist and a mentor to others.

If you’re struggling with communication in your mentor meetings, why don’t you give my notepad trick a try? Here’s how to do it in three simple steps:

  1. Keep a sticky note, scrap of paper, or a notepad near your workstation and write down questions or observations that you want to share with your mentor. 
  2. Bring it with you to your next meeting and make sure that all of your questions get answered. 
  3. Adapt to fit your own style. It may take a few meetings for your mentor to come around to the change in style, or for it to not feel awkward, but even if this strategy fails, it could show the effort that you are making to change the dynamic. If you hold onto your agendas, you’ll have a record of what you discussed and your thought processes over time, the big and little pictures of your research, and a tool to reflect upon your progress.

Asking for Feedback

Specifically, when it comes to writing, I find that feedback can be one of the greater challenges in the mentoring relationship. I see this in myself and in many of the students that I see in writing consultations. Many of my clients come in with papers colorfully marked up by their mentors. Certain comments are easy to address: replace a citation here, add a sentence to this section there. But sometimes the comments don’t seem helpful at all. “This isn’t what we discussed,” “I don’t like this section,” or worse, the dreaded comment that merely reads, “?”. Two facts that I like to remind students feeling put down or lost by these comments are:

  • your STEM mentor was not trained to teach, much less edit, academic writing, and
  • it’s always easier to find things that feel wrong than it is to articulate what’s wrong and how to fix it.

I took an academic writing course a few years ago that totally changed my writing process. See my previous post on “How to Get Writing and Stick with It,” many of the tips I picked up came from that class. One thing that we did in that course was peer editing. But this peer editing was unlike what we had ‘practiced’ in high school or as undergraduates. This was well-informed teaching that actually helped us learn to focus on helping the writer achieve understanding from a reader’s perspective. This is how writing consultants make their money (jk, we don’t make a lot, but we certainly have job security!). Many people smarter than me have written and taught about how to make peer editing work, but for the sake of staying on topic I’ll sum up what I learned and want to pass along to you to facilitate these encounters with your mentor:

  • ask specifically for feedback on the big picture. Encourage your mentor that you will fix (or get help with) the grammar and basic sentence structure on your own;
  • ask if there are any missing major ideas or gaps in the literature you have cited;
  • ask for help on specific sections, e.g., “I know that this whole draft needs reviewing in time, but can we please focus on developing the ideas in my discussion for this round?”; and
  • ask to sit down with your mentor after they read your draft and review their comments.

Try a Live Writing Review

I want to take a minute to expand on my last tip. One-on-one sessions, whether they’re in person or over video chat, can transform your writing feedback relationship. I’ve had a couple of sessions with my mentor where we sat and discussed edits in real-time. Those sessions were amazing, not only because we left with a darn good draft, but because we knew what the other was thinking in the moment. When people give comments face-to-face, they’re less mean and more constructive. They’re more direct about where their brain wants to go and where the writing seems to be taking them. They talk about their experience as a reader within that section. Since the reader’s understanding is the ultimate goal of a piece of writing, getting clear reader feedback is vital to making a good product.

I conducted a Twitter poll to ask other trainees whether they ever receive live feedback on their written work. Although it was a small sample, 77% said that they have and that it was helpful. 23% said they had not, but they thought it would help. No one responded that they thought it was not or would not be helpful. If you think this would help, try suggesting it to your mentor! If they say no, try finding someone who will say yes.

Try Out a Writing Consultation

Most universities have some sort of academic writing center. Many are geared towards undergraduates, but may still offer some opportunities to work with graduate writers. UC Davis offers graduate writing consultations with peer consultants that are trained to work with you and teach you how to improve your writing. We’re not experts, but we have the advantage of recent experience with what you are going through. If you are struggling to have a difficult conversation with your mentor, if you have tried unsuccessfully to get them to acknowledge the difficulties you are currently facing, or if you simply want an outside opinion, we are here. 

You get up to 6 free sessions per quarter where we emphasize helping you become a better writer, through listening to your needs and showing you ways you can practice improving your writing. If you need help working through your mentor’s feedback, polishing up a grant application, putting together a draft, or even just talking about your relationship with writing, you can book a consultation on our webpage. We look forward to working with you!