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Putting mentoring first

When faculty focus on supporting their students, everybody wins

by Jen Heemstra and Neil Garg, special to C&EN
September 12, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 35


Illustration of a scientist choosing between research and mentoring.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Mentoring or research? Which should faculty prioritize?

“What is more important in our jobs: the research or the researchers?” This question came up recently during an impromptu phone conversation with my colleague Neil Garg of the University of California, Los Angeles. Our daily goals may be focused on producing scientific research, but as faculty, we also have a significant role to play as mentors to the people in our research labs.

To answer this question, we need to have a deeper conversation with those we mentor, because the choices we make have a huge impact on them. After our phone conversation, Neil and I convened our groups for a joint Zoom meeting to explore the role of faculty as mentors, and we’re coauthoring this column to share what we learned.

Our lab members were quick to identify examples where research productivity and good mentoring complement each other. When faculty invest time in professional development for their group members­—by involving them in writing manuscripts and grants, coaching them on how to be mentors for other students in the lab, and teaching them how to set goals and work efficiently­—that can create a system that maximizes productivity while also benefiting the well-being and future career of each individual.

But our lab members were also quick to identify times when faculty had to choose between maximizing research productivity and doing what is best for their mentees. Some faculty expect their mentees to work long hours, even if it is at the expense of their mental health. Other faculty support students and postdocs who want to participate in outreach or other professional development activities, even if it comes at the cost of time spent in lab. Clearly, all faculty members have a choice to make about their priorities—do they place research productivity first or mentoring first?

For both of us, the choice is clear—mentoring comes first. At the same time, we recognize that we’ve received relatively little formal training around how to be good mentors. Our lab members suggested that, in addition to focusing on professional development, faculty should be clear in setting and communicating expectations, listen to and remain open to feedback, and consistently convey the importance of self-care and well-being. Such efforts can empower students, promote creative thinking, and ultimately lead to higher research productivity.

We can pursue mentoring goals much as we do our research goals. Similar to planning an experiment, we can identify the desired mentoring outcome, then work backward to figure out the system or action needed to achieve that goal. For example, if we want to support professional development as mentors, we can set aside time during group meetings to offer instruction on these topics, and we can schedule regular one-on-one meetings with each of our group members to work together on individual development plans.

Many students who are starting graduate school this fall also have a choice to make. While it may seem appealing to join the lab of a faculty member who promises you will publish a certain number of papers, beware of hidden costs behind those promises, such as the impact on your mental health. You can look for signs that a faculty member prioritizes mentoring and student well-being. How do you do this? Our own lab members again have much wisdom to share. Their advice includes asking current and former group members what activities or interests they pursue outside lab and what professional development opportunities exist. One especially interesting piece of advice is to ask lab members whether the faculty member has hobbies. While not a perfect indicator, faculty who value having a life outside work and are willing to talk about that openly are more likely to support students in taking time for their own well-being.

Clearly, putting mentoring first is in the best interest of our group members. But we think it is also in our best interest as faculty. While we each hope to leave a mark on the field with our research, our bigger impact will likely be through the students and postdocs whom we have the privilege of mentoring. And prioritizing the professional development and well-being of those we mentor can in turn lead to more creativity and higher-quality research. Perhaps putting mentoring first can create a situation where everyone wins. We hope you’ll join us in trying the experiment.

Jen Heemstra is an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares advice on Twitter at @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at

Neil Garg is a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry and department chair at UCLA.

Views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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