My very first task in the lab as an undergrad was to pull layers of fungus off dozens of cups of tomato juice. My second task was PCR, at which I initially excelled. Cock-sure after a week of smaller samples, I remember confidently attempting an 80-reaction PCR, with no positive control. Every single reaction failed. Which is to say that science doesn’t let you go for long without failure.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this PCR, partly because I’m returning to molecular work after a seven year gap. But mostly, I’ve been thinking about how my bosses responded to that failed reaction. I don’t remember the precise details but I suspect my immediate mentors, other lab members, regaled me with their own “shit happens” stories. I vividly recall a flash of disappointment across the face of one of my PIs, probably mourning all that wasted Taq. That combination—“this happens to all of us, but it really would be best if it didn’t happen again”—was exactly what I needed to keep going and to be more careful.
In the time since I was a college freshman, I’ve learnt how widely varied different academic mentoring styles are. And my overwhelming feeling in the face of what I’ve learnt is gratitude at having dodged the “tough love” bullet. “Tough love” is the idea that because doing science requires a tough skin, it is a mentor’s role to provide the stimulus for that skin toughening. I know that I would have wilted under such mentoring, and I know plenty of others who feel similarly.
But “tough love” mentoring in science seems to persist so much as to be mostly unremarked upon. Take, for example, this excerpt from Hope Jahren’s widely acclaimed new memoir, Lab Girl:
Either you think this is business-as-usual in a science lab, or, like me, you read this and worry that all you are destined to be is an adequate scientist, that you are one of the many who will be weeded out of science because you aren’t tough enough, aren’t dedicated enough, and do consider your time (literally the only thing we’re guaranteed in this world) of some value.
If my first experiences in science had been like this, I doubt I would be doing a Ph.D. I took a quick poll of about 15 of my grad student and postdoc friends, asking them to imagine how they’d react in that situation. Not a single one of them believed that they’d have stayed that extra hour. Of course, your mileage may vary—maybe something like this was your first experience in science, and you thrived because of it. And having mentored a grand total of four undergrads, it obviously isn’t my place to tell anyone else how to mentor their students. But I do know how I’d respond as a mentee, and I do wonder who ends up being excluded from science when tests of this manner are devised for students to “pass”.
As my failed 80-reaction PCR and many subsequent failures have shown me, science is tough enough without the hurdles placed before us, consciously or unconsciously, by our peers and superiors. As a community, we need to figure out which of the tasks we require of scientists-in-training are vital to making us good scientists, and which serve simply as hoops to jump through, excluding anyone who isn’t a very particular type of person. This is especially vital because the track record of who is consistently underrepresented in science is clear.
We’ll likely never all agree on how much tough love is the right amount to prepare someone for a career in science. Our disagreement is a good thing, and will provide a range of mentoring environments in which a range of people will thrive. But students entering science need to know that this range exists, that tough love isn’t the only way that scientists are trained. There are alternatives to being thrown in the deep end, and it’s possible to have the time and space to learn to swim, to gradually grow a tougher skin, before you sink. There is no single story on the basis of which you should decide not to enter the water at all.
And if it’s true that mentoring in science is, at present, overwhelmingly tough love-ish, is that something we want to change? Yes, if we’re at all committed to making science accessible to people from varied backgrounds, and ensuring that they (we) have the space to thrive.
Thanks to the eleven people, spanning a range of career stages, who read this post over and offered comments/suggestions before it went public.
P.S. Letting fungus grow on tomato seeds mixed in tomato juice them is a clever way to get the gelatinous coat off the tomato seeds, which helps the seeds germinate without rotting
P.P.S. Dr. Jahren has a couple of questions for me (and you) in response to this post:
- Amongst theoreticians (as opposed to — or perhaps in addition to — laboratory or field experimentalists), it is very common to require a graduate student to take difficult course(s) in higher math, coding, statistics etc., without any guarantee that the techniques taught will be directly useful or even invoked during the dissertation project, under the expectation that what the student learns from struggling with the material is a useful general enrichment. For some students, these types of courses serve as roadblocks to progressing. Does this at all relate to the tough-love mentoring phenomenon you name and describe?
- The extremely competitive funding situation in science research has a direct effect on the amount of productivity that must be proposed and then delivered in order to “make ends meet” in the laboratory for each 3-year cycle (e.g., the numbers-budget breakdown that I offered in Part 2 is illustrative). To what extent does this provide a structural constraint on the amount of time and energy available for the trial and error process that is so important during learning? Would changing the availability and mechanism of funding for students have an effect on tough-love mentoring?
I’ll be pondering these questions; in the meanwhile, chime in with your thoughts in the comments below!