Three themes emerged that contribute to science identity formation through mentoring: 1. Factors for science identity formation; 2. Mentorship among different career stages, and 3. Defining own mentoring style. Each participant highlighted challenges that they faced as they developed their personal science identity, experiences while mentees, and how they used their personal experiences to provide better mentorship for the students they work with.
Theme 1: Factors for Science Identity Formation
The first theme that emerged was the different factors that each interviewed participant viewed as important for forming science identity (SI). This theme relates specifically to the participants’ own understanding of their SI formation, and their experience watching their mentees form their SI. Each participant agreed that a student must be able to “see themselves in a position in order to make the leap from being a student to be a researcher or actual scientist.” This can be achieved by having access to “role models that look like you, sound like you, that may have something in common with you.” Each participant spoke of the importance of hands-on experience, working in groups, and having
“room for exploration to see what a person likes, letting students explore new skills and problem solve, and having supportive parents that allow students to freely explore their interest.”
One important comment was made by an interviewee pertaining to working with women and the importance of “seeing [other] women who are academics and raising a family” because it made them realize they could have a fulfilling academic career, as well as a family. The research participants, without exposure to the literature during the interview process, summarized the findings in the literature (Carlone and Johnson 2007, Ovink and Veazey 2011).
Theme 2: Mentorship Among Different Career Stages
The second emergent theme was the difference in how the participants in each career stage, i.e., established career professionals, mid-career professionals, and early career professional, viewed the mentorship that they received as students. Established career professionals discussed how their advisors did not leave them with positive experiences, “No one thought of mentoring in the manner in which we do now. My graduate mentor was very hands-off.” Early career professionals view their time with their mentors in a much more positive light. One participant described an event in which their:
“Mentor was someone who treated me and taught me about equality, I ended up with two course preps or something, while all the other students only had one. And I was a first year, so why was I getting all of this extra work. So, when she found out, I have never seen such a fury on someone’s face as they walked down the hallway, like I just walked out and then just closed the door. But the fact that, she saw that an inequality was happening in the department, and she stood up for me…she knew that it wasn’t okay, and she caused a big stink about it, and we got it rearranged and fixed, so I didn’t have too much more work. I think it’s very important to know someone is there to advocate for you and take care of you if you need support in that regard, or if you are uncertain, like maybe you feel like something’s a little unfair, but you can’t quite figure it out, having someone with experience be there and fight for you really buoyed my understanding of what a good mentor is.”
Interestingly enough, mid-career professional saw a blend in this regard. A participant of this study discussed how they "[were] driven crazy all the time. My advisor just didn't have the time” to mentor them, but that their fellow graduate students were there to help when they had a minor question. The participant went on to discuss, however, how their advisor was available when they needed him the most:
“Left to my own devices…when I was in grad school, I got myself into all sorts of hot water politically with people because I was just an eager, interested person who was very unaware of the norms of academia and in terms of, especially, the sort of hierarchical power structure among academics and especially outside of this country, and it was very helpful to have an advisor who, even though was very hands off most of the time, when needed, would step in and do whatever he could to, you know, fix whatever was happening.”
This theme is supported by the idea of transferring social capital from the mentor to the mentee (Carlone and Johnson 2007, Ovink and Veazey 2011). Mentees often are unaware of what questions to ask because they do not know the culture or are unaware of a specific topic. Mentors are meant, not only to shepherd their mentee through a research project, but to also make them aware of the culture of their field, when a situation is unfair, or simply, to provide a lending hand when a student does not know where to go next with their research.
Theme 3: Defining Own Mentoring Style
The final theme that emerged from this study was how the participants defined their mentoring style based on their experiences with their own mentors. They all discussed how they used their negative mentoring experiences as catalysts for how they would, in turn, mentor their own students. They touched upon how they “needed to fail to know how to succeed” as well as how a:
“hands-off approach made me want to be more hands-on with my students but allowing them room to fail and problem solve on their own, knowing I was available when they were ready to ask for help.”
The study participants describe how each mentee is different and requires a different approach. Knowing what the students’ goals are, a mentor can tailor their mentoring approach to better foster and encourage the student.
Along the same vein, another participant discussed their induction into mentorship and how they used their experience to become a better mentor:
"When I first started graduate school, nobody taught me how to mentor. So, I sort of modeled it from what I saw in my mentor. I didn't like some of what he did, he never complimented me, he only told you when you weren't doing a good job. So, I consciously try to compliment my students when they are doing a good job and encourage them."
By building trust and communication, mentors can foster growth within their students, which is imperative to HEG students. Not feeling supported or receiving enough communication from their mentors can often times leave HEG students feeling like they do not belong in research (Carlone and Johnson 2007, Ovink and Veazey 2011, White et al. 2019). However, one participant mentioned the importance of learning from their mentors, and how to advocate for themself, an important skill for HEGs as they are faced with a multitude of barriers:
“I had to learn to self-advocate. I was disappointed that my advisor did not advocate for me, but I had to learn how to do it myself. I realized that I have to teach my students how to advocate for themselves, like my advisor did for me during my masters, and then help them through advocating for themselves like my advisor did during my PhD, but maybe take a more hands on approach than he did. I was very nervous and anxious, and had I known he was supportive and an active participant in the wings, my anxiety would have been lessened knowing I had help if I needed it.”
Successful mentorship, and the eventual formation of a science identity in underrepresented minority students, requires several factors: a commitment from the mentors to increase representation of HEG in STEM, understand how SI is formed by understanding their own experience and their students, and realizing that the mentorship they experienced as students informs and defines their own mentorship style (Fig 1).