Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Mentor v. Supervisor

For various reasons related to my serving on an insane number of committees that review an insane number of CVs from faculty in many different academic disciplines, I see a lot of different CVs that vary considerably in their content and style.

Fortunately, most such committees have diverse membership so that there is almost always someone who can explain certain 'cultural' differences in CVs.

Sometimes, however, no one knows what to make of certain elements of a CV. For example, lately I have been wondering whether there is a difference in meaning as to whether someone "mentors" or "supervises" a postdoc.

Are these synonyms? If so, presumably the word "mentor" is chosen to indicate that the faculty-postdoc interactions involved a range of activities such as one might encounter in the new NSF-mandated postdoc mentoring statement that accompanies proposals that include funding for postdocs?

Or does "mentoring" mean that someone worked with a postdoc who may have acquired their own funding, whereas "supervised" means that the faculty got the funding for an idea they developed in a proposal? In this case, could "mentoring" include a broad range of levels of interaction, from "I gave the postdoc some advice from time to time" to "I was the primary faculty member interacting with this postdoc"?

What started me wondering about this was a CV that involved the "mentoring" of some postdocs, but the "supervising" of others. Without additional information, it's difficult to know what that means. It seems likely that "mentoring" in this case means interacting with postdocs who are funded by some source other than the faculty member's grants, whereas "supervising" means that the faculty member was more involved in the hiring of the postdoc for a particular project.

But I'm not sure. Has anyone used these terms, either as synonyms or as distinct terms implying different types of interaction?

32 comments:

Anonymous said...

In my field, we don't use the word "mentor" at all, but "supervisor" or just "advisor." and the students and postdocs tend to see the advisors as bosses to be obeyed and avoid their wrath, not as "mentors".

kamikaze said...

I have used "mentor" about my inofficial thesis supervisor (i.e. the one actually supervising me) in official settings where the supervisor has to be the "on paper" supervisor.

But I would also consider someone who gives career advice and support a mentor even if that person does not give any scientific support. It could be someone from a different field, whose experiences (for instance being a woman scientist) are relevant for me.

Anonymous said...

I would say that mentoring involved helping guide someone on issues to do with career progression etc. Therefore I would hope that all good supervisors (ie those who are responsible for helping with the science) were mentors as well but that you could be a mentor without being a supervisor! (Hope that is clear - and not clear as mud...)

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I have never considered the term "supervisor" applicable to a faculty-post-doc or faculty-grad student relationship. Post-docs and students are trainees and are mentored by faculty, not supervised. This is the case regardless of the funding sources that support trainee stipends/salaries.

hkukbilingualidiot said...

In the UK, mentors mean that they look after the social/personal side of the graduates/post-doc whereas supervisors are more specifically to do with the science. Also, mentors acts as a point of call when things are not going right with the supervisor.

Anonymous said...

I am currently at a Canadian university, where "supervisor" rather than "advisor" or "mentor" is commonly used. It seems to be a cultural difference.

I still use "advisor", because I think it best reflects what I actually do.

Anonymous said...

sounds like touchy-feely language vs. more standard language. The former is also less hierarchical.

joanium said...

In the business context, my experience is that people have managers and mentors. Managers give direction on projects, allocate your time and give technical guidance. Mentors usually advise on non-technical issues like work-life balance, navigating workplace politics, career advice, and advice on managing your manager. Mentors can be unofficial or official.

Liz said...

Hmm, interesting. I have always used, and heard used the term "supervisor", when describing the main PI who interacted with the trainee and acquired funding, whether it be for a PhD student or a post-poc. However, I just returned from a major conference and was interested to hear "mentor" being used to describe this main PI, almost exclusively (may have been an issue of the conference being in a slightly different field than I am typically associated with)

None the less, at best, I would have considered them synonyms. No clue as to what the difference would be when both are included on a CV

Xanthophyllippa said...

Has mentoring as a category replaced serving on a student's committee? It sounds like the distinction could be one of how direct or official the heirarchy is - if you're not supervising someone directly but you still work closely with them on their work, perhaps "mentor" captures that relationship better than "committee member," which in some cases means nothing more than "I showed up for the defense and asked a question that had nothing to do with the thesis research."

BB said...

Maybe it also has to do with job titles for post-docs. At my place, some post-docs are research associates (paid off a PI's grant and according to our university, supervised), whereas others are post-doctoral fellows (having their independent fellowships, not paid off PI's grants; as you point out, they would be mentors not supervised).


It could also have to do with how controling a PI is. Do you see both terms used on the same CVs?

Jo said...

I'm only a postdoc, but I would say that I supervised an undergraduate if I directed an independent study with him or her (chose the readings, proposed a research direction, or critiqued the student's work). I would say that I mentored a student if I gave him or her advice about academia or other career options (suggested graduate schools, read a statement of purpose, or just talked for a while about combining having a personal life and a career in academia). There are certainly students I've mentored but not supervised and vice versa. Perhaps this is the distinction this person was making?

EliRabett said...

Mentoring can mean interacting with strongly. With the growth of interdisciplinary programs and group projects this has become more common.

Supervising implies supporting and directing. Of course YMMV

Anonymous said...

I am just a PhD student, but I supervise my adviser on using our lab equipment and we often discuss at length the direction the lab (and his career) wants to go. Does this mean I should put on my CV that I supervise and mentor a senior faculty member at a major university?

neurwoman said...

The distinction between mentor and supervisor is probably unimportant until, as in my field, one has been a postdoc for a long time. After a first postdoc and later, one's independence as a researcher becomes an issue. (Independence fiscally, and intellectually as someone who comes up with their own ideas, executes expts of their own design, capable of interpreting data with minimal input from someone more senior.) 'Mentor' implies a relationship that doesn't detract from that independence, while 'supervisor' does. There are also NIH fellowship mechanisms that are specifically worded as 'Mentored' Programs (many are for MD's who are starting clinical research), in which the mentor is not your boss per se, but someone who can offer guidance during the training period.
Personally, I don't use either term in my CV, except for students I have quite literally 'supervised'. I do list my mentors/advisors, but list them as 'advisor' or just say paranthetically ('with so-and-so').

Anonymous said...

I always use mentor now, ever since an NSF PO cracked down on my inadequate postdoc mentoring statement. Chairs, deans, and other college administrators seem to like mentor-speak as well.

Anonymous said...

I am a postdoc in an engineering department at an ILU.

I consider my supervisor as the one who hired me, who pays my salary to conduct the research in his lab and by the definition of the relationship, who is interested in the success of the projects I am working on.

My mentor is someone who is interested in my progress, who I can ask about career moves and related issues. In mentoring role, s/he is not interested in my science project but rather is interested me.

Blessed are the postdocs/trainees for whom the supervisor and the mentor is the same person.

Isabella said...

At my university, mentoring is encouraged, and is very different from supervising.

When a professor mentors a postdoc/student, that person usually doesn't work for him/her but in another group, and the mentor meets on a regular basis to advise on career issues.

The standard university long CV is supposed to have a section about mentoring, which is consequently significantly different from the section about supervising.

Thinkerbell said...

'Mentor' has a lot more of an appreciative value than 'Supervisor' (which is just the job but may not always be constructive, supportive and ... well... mentoring). That's how I might read it on a student's or postdoc's CV. Plus mentor-speak is typical for this day and age as the power balance is becoming smaller. However, one would hope that faculty would see mentoring as part of the job, even if it's not with their own students. To list 'mentored' students separately on a faculty's CV to me sounds a bit lame.

Anonymous said...

I sometimes used the term mentor on my applications. In this context mentor meant 'I did the day to day advising, helping, commenting etc' but due to being untenured/senior postdoc cannot actually call myself a supervisor since that is apparently the head of department who is 'supervising' a million people and has no time to speak to or give a toss about anyone. But who would get offended if I dared to call myself a supervisor....

Psycgirl said...

in Clinical Psyc a supervisor is someone who oversees your clinical training, and an advisor is in charge of your research. Not sure how this applies to other sciences though...

Paula said...

Sounds like this is at least partly a national thing. Here in Colonial Under Country, a research student has a supervisor who is the main teacher for that student. If we speak of a mentor, that's an unofficial relationship in which one probably gets career advice and the like. A resume would specify a researchers supervisor, and if there was a mentor, probably the only way a reader could tell would be by the presence of that person was that they may be a referree of some sort.

For employed (post doctoral) researchers, supervisor would mean direct manager- signing pay sheets, but not necessarily providing any professional advice. Again, claiming someone as a mentor in a CV would be considered a bit wanky. Those lucky enough to have them at this stage might write with them, or have a letter of reference from them in a job app.

chemcat said...

Anonymous 9:02, are you looking for postdoc positions? I'd love to have you in lab :-)

Anonymous said...

In my field (earth sciences) "mentor" implies that the postdoc obtained their own funding, whereas "supervisor" implies that the postdoc is working under a PI who obtained funding for that postdoc. I am an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow who acquired my own funding that is tied to me alone and is transferable if I were to change institutions. My postdoc mentors are "mentors" not "supervisors". They mentor me on my research projects (which I outlined and proposed to obtain the NSF Fellowship and are independent of their own funded research, yet tied to their and my expertise) and they provide guidance to help me keep my career on track.

Anonymous said...

To me, a mentor is someone who gives you advice altruistically. This can only be done if they dont' have a personal stake in you. If they do have a vested interest, then you can't be sure that what they say is truly in your best interest or theirs. Or at best they would be limited to giving you advice that is mutually beneficial but which may not be as good for you as some other path which did not also benefit them.

Thus, a supervisor often cannot be a good mentor as well because there will be times when conflicts of interest arise e.g. a supervisor may try to prevent you from leaving for a better position elsewhere because it will be inconvenient or detrimental to them to lose a highly trained employee.

If they are "only" supervisors then it is acceptable for them to look out for themselves and 'sacrifice' you during conflicts of interest. You would not fault them for doing so. But if they call themselves "mentors" then somehow it leads to a sense of betrayal if they still do this. And that's where the problem lies. I have seen numerous examples of postdoc advisors doing slimey things at the expense of their trainees - exploiting and taking advantage of trainess to further their own careers and leaving the trainees in a bad position. To then have the gall to declare they are "mentors" is appalling. At least if they called themselves mere "supervisors" it's not so bad.

In my field most postdocs have a supervisor-employee relationship with their adivsors, rather than a mentoring relationship.

I think it's a huge problem in science that career advancement - especially that of postdocs - depends so much on receiving mentoring. Most postdoc advisors that I know of, are not mentors. They are not interested in mentoring. They are supervisors, out to gain benefit for themselves and their careers and not really caring what happens to their postdocs. Calling themselves "mentors" is hypocritical.

W. Brian Lane said...

I use the term "mentored" on my CV to describe my relationship in graduate school to a junior grad student in my research group. I certainly was not "supervising" him, but did help him learn the ropes of our field and our mutual supervisor's research code.

Spiny Norman said...

This conversation seems alien to me. My CV just has subheadings for undergraduate, predoctoral, and postdoctoral trainees. When they obtain independent funding I list it. If they've left I say, "Currently ____ at ___." What else is there to say?'

I certainly wouldn't list "mentoring" for a student that I wasn't directly (wait for it, PP) supervising. I give lots of people lots of informal advice, but I regularly go to the bathroom as well, and that's not on my CV, either. People put so much pointless crap on their CV.

Here's what I really think: grad students should be limited to a 1 page CV, postdocs to 2 pages, assistant professors to 3, associates to 4, and full professors to 1 or 2 (by then, they should have done enough important work that the small stuff falls away).

swede in us said...

For me "supervisor" is the same as "supervisor" in any work situation; where the money is and who is ultimately in charge of not letting me go on etc... A PI doesn't have a supervisor since thy have their own money.

A mentor is who you choose to trust to listen to, about career and life choices. I wouldn't necessarily call someone a mentor on my CV - mostly because I feel uncomfortable pointing out that bond.

And on top of that, I wouldn't like that it matters who is mentoring me - in order for me to get a scientific job since I would hope that my record stands on it own. that may be the most naive thought since we all know that people don't get jobs on merits (alone) but rather "who you know and who knows you". Then again, writing down the mentor name on a piece of paper is superficial and word of mouth is more important.

Dr Spouse said...

In a UK context, this wouldn't be a touchy-feely difference but a genuine technical difference. The supervisor would be the grant-holder. Regardless of whether the postdoc had a grant-holding supervisor, their department would be assigning them a separate mentor - new members of faculty would get this too.

The mentor would encourage them in all the ways a supervisor should (though of course some postdocs don't have that), and also being more neutral than a line managing supervisor.

Anonymous said...

Supervisor - no (unless you're in industry or not a student).
Mentor - maybe (depends on the person and how good the relationship is). Adviser - always applicable

Ms.PhD said...

Yes, I would and do use "mentoring" to mean something different. In fact, I'm kind of surprised that you even asked about this.

I have many mentors, most of whom are not paid to advise me, in authorship or grant money, nor are they co-authors on my papers.

I have one official advisor, my PI, who reaps many direct and indirect benefits from my papers, funding, and public presentations. I do not consider this person to be much of a mentor, and have never used this word to refer to my PI, because I consider mentoring to be part of the job.

I have had students, technicians, and junior postdocs who work with me, and I try to be a mentor to them.

But I am also a mentor to many other students, technicians, and postdocs, who are not in my lab, and I am not on their papers or thesis committee (and their PI probably does not even know I am helping them).

Generally my reward is to be thanked in their thesis defense or other public presentation(s). But I do not list them on my CV.

In some cases I have contributed enough to their projects to become a co-author on their publication, in which case that shows up on my CV. Interestingly, nobody ever asks me how I manage to collaborate with so many people in other labs.

Helix said...

Interesting. My CV only lists the students/fellows that I directly supervised. However, there are many, many more that I have actually mentored who were not in my lab. I never thought about listing them.