Nancy Rothwell

May 6, 2005

Bring back the personal touch. Courses are all very well, but they can't replace 'apprenticeship' with a senior colleague

We seem to be inundated with new courses; courses for PhD students seem de rigueur. Courses for new lecturers to learn to be good teachers seem to be taking over much of their early period as academics, and even the more senior members of the profession are offered training in all sorts of things, some of which I've never heard of. I don't have a problem with courses, as long as they are delivered well, focused on the needs of the attendees and, most important, effective. Those I have experienced have been varied. Some good, some not so good. I shall never forget a "time management" course Iattended many years ago. The lecturer was 20 minutes late.

Obligatory courses ensure that everyone has access to all the information and advice, as not everyone is lucky enough to have senior colleagues with the time, willingness and ability to impart their knowledge and experience. But I worry about what this formal training may be replacing. Success and training in academia has traditionally depended on "apprenticeship". A good PhD supervisor should be instrumental in discussing everything about research, how to do it, get it funded, published and recognised. Fortunately my supervisor did. In my first meeting (two hours in the pub, which was obligatory for the whole lab), he wanted to know what I thought research was, why I wanted to do it and what I thought I would achieve: big questions. My answers were poor, but it did make me think. Then as you move up the academic ladder, various mentors advise, encourage and gently criticise. Or hopefully so. The success of this system is suggested by the fact that the best researchers most often emerge from groups led by the best researchers. Inevitably these groups attract individuals with the greatest potential, but they do often train the next generation of stars. So why now the plethora of courses?

One problem with the "apprenticeship" system is that it is demanding on the time of senior staff and very much "the luck of the draw". If you get a good supervisor/mentor, all is well. But often it is not. Advisers are highly varied in their skills and expertise, and in their willingness and ability to share their knowledge with others.

Some prospective PhD students and post-docs are particularly astute in recognising this. Applicants for PhDs often interview me, wanting to know about their likely supervision and training, funding for the lab, the success of my previous PhD students, how much is published and so on. They are the ones who normally get the position. But I worry that we are failing to value the great skills of mentorship that are so critical to academia, however good our training courses may be. We don't fully recognise, support, reward or disseminate the great components and qualities of mentorship. Perhaps this is because it is so difficult to define.

I recently had the opportunity to think about what good mentorship is, and even assess it. The leading science journal Nature and Nesta (the National Endowment for Science Technology and Arts) worked together to set up a competition to identify the best "lifetime" and "mid-career" mentors in science. They were assessed mainly on nominations from scientists they had trained and mentored. Nominations came from all disciplines in science and the competition was incredibly tough. The judging panel had a difficult but fascinating task.

The younger scientists were glowing in praise for their respective mentors, each of whom was obviously unique and highly talented. But there were important common messages. Clearly the scientific talent of the mentors was a key factor (and one of the criteria), but to the mentees, many other factors contributed to their success. Many commented that their heroes (as most mentors were) inspired and impressed by example, showed great respect for each individual, listened to their views, encouraged rather than repressed or criticised, and were able to draw out the very best from each of their young charges. Key qualities that featured heavily were enthusiasm, fairness and honesty, "always finding time", and the ability to make even the newest and most naive student feel valued and important.

Basically, they cared about the people they trained, wanted them to succeed and were unselfish in helping them.

Scientists are often viewed as objective and rather cold individuals. Yet these nominators talked of compassion, humanity and support for personal as well as scientific problems. Indeed, many continued to seek their supervisors' advice years or even decades later, when they themselves had become successful scientists. It's questionable whether these qualities can be learnt through formal courses, and perhaps they shouldn't be. But we should not forget what has nurtured success in the past.

Frank Furedi

to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments