Administrators and the Responsible Conduct of Research

Mentor/Trainee Responsibilities

One morning, even before she has finished her first cup of coffee, Nancy Ames glances up from her computer screen to see Lisa Gray, a third year graduate student in Dr. Young's lab, coming into the office with a very worried expression. Lisa blurts out, "Now I’m sure of it! Dr. Young thinks I'm a terrible student. Maybe I should just quit grad school!" After asking a few questions, it becomes clear to Ames that the immediate problem has to do with the summary of Lisa’s annual meeting with her advisory committee.

As departmental secretary, one of Ames' responsibilities is to assist the department’s graduate program director, Prof. Oldham, with the record keeping associated with the graduate program. The department requires that all graduate students have a meeting with their advisory committee at least once a year. After the meeting, the student’s advisor is expected to write up a summary for all the participants and for the files on each student that Ames keeps. These files are reviewed annually by the faculty on the graduate program committee to be sure that all grad students are making good progress.

Last week, Ames sent out reminders to students for whom she did not yet have summaries, about half of those in the department, and to their advisors.

Lisa reports that she had met with her advisory committee almost a month ago. So, when she got her reminder, she immediately went to Prof. Young’s office and asked about the summary.

"She said she was busy getting ready for class, and she’d talk to me later," said Lisa. "I tried three more times last week, and each time it was 'I'll get to it when I have time, and I have to get to a meeting' or something like that. Then the week before that, I tried to talk to her about whether I should move into this cheaper apartment I found about an hour from campus, and she refused to give me any advice. Guess she figures I’m not worth her time; that I’m just not cut out for grad school!"

This case concerning Nancy Ames is repeated in the Case Section where it is accompanied by a Case Discussion.


Finding themselves in situations where they seem to be caught in the middle between those who may be mentors and their trainees can be very difficult for administrative staff members. Although these mentor-trainee relationships are not the primary responsibility of staff the way that the financial management of grant funds is, it is not unusual for administrative staff to become involved in some way. The difficulty arises because there are no clear policies that apply to these situations, and, while there may be guidelines, the role of staff members is almost never addressed. Sometimes these issues are referred to as "mentor-trainee responsibilities" sometimes as "mentor-trainee relationships." The concern in this module is the responsibilities of those directly and indirectly involved in these relationships.

To whom are we referring when we speak of "mentors" and "trainees"? Trainee is a term used primarily in the biomedical sciences to refer to graduate students and/or post-doctoral fellows. Some people object to the term, pointing out that dogs are trained while graduate students are supposed to be educated so as to learn to become independent researchers. It is widely used, however, and we will use it in this module to refer to any more-junior member of a team who is being advised.

Mentor is a term that is used in a number of ways and because of this can lead to confusion. In the broadest sense, "a mentor is someone who takes a special interest in helping another person develop into a successful professional" (ReferenceAdviser, Teacher, Role Model...). However, mentoring is usually understood to refer to something more than a standard advisory or supervisory relationship. It is a personal relationship that, if effective, is "characterized by mutual respect, trust, understanding, and empathy" (ReferenceAdviser, Teacher, Role Model...). As the University of Michigan explains in the booklet How to Get the Mentoring You Want, A Guide for Graduate Students at a Diverse University,"A mentoring relationship is a close, individualized relationship that develops over time between a graduate student and a faculty member (or others) that includes both caring and guidance."

In our opening case, Lisa has assumed that since Prof. Young was her research advisor she was also her mentor, i.e., someone interested in more than just her professional development. Prof. Young, however, may not have seen things this way. When all advisors are automatically referred to as "mentors," it can lead to confusion and conflicting expectations. So, as others have suggested, we will use "advisor" as the general term to refer to a person who advises someone who is in a subordinate position. The terms "mentor" and "mentoring" will be reserved for those nurturing relationships that are professional but also include a more personal aspect.

For most of the illustrations in this module, the advisors will be faculty members of academic institutions and the trainees will be graduate students or post-docs. However, the general principles and best practices presented here should apply to any advisory relationship between a more senior professional and a more junior one. Therefore they could apply to relationships among administrative staff members, for instance, or to relationships between research staff and faculty. Administrators experience a similar situation when they are assigned a special advisor until they settle into their positions.

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