I was recently in a meeting in which a few undergrads were presenting a research update to fellow students, grad students, and professors. The UGs started working in labs about three weeks prior and the aim of this meeting was (as I see it) to share what each was doing in their respective groups and to force them to get some data to present. Now, it should not be any news that faculty are a bit tough and that they enjoy questioning EVERYTHING, so they of course, will ask questions of the presenter. However, it was disheartening for me to see that the faculty were asking questions of the UGs that a grad student or someone who has been on a project for a long period of time would know. Moreover, none of the grad student mentors were coming to the aid of their mentees.
The question I pose from this situation is: when is it all right to step in? In other words, when should one be on the defensive or offensive with respect to mentoring?
I will have to say grad school is all about defending one’s work, and using others’ work to formulate theories and conclusions about one’s own findings, so needless to say one is constantly on the defensive throughout the journey. However, another responsibility of a grad student is to oversee UGs and high school students and mentor them. Something that goes hand in hand with this process is the guidance one shows how to be to a mentee. In other words, how one should approach difficult questions, how to solve a scientific problem, and most importantly, how one should act in a professional environment.
From my point of view, it is my duty as a mentor to stand up for the people who work in my lab and on my projects and guide them. Not make them constantly feel defeated. This is not an interrogation, brawl, or contest of whit. The students are here to gain experiences to reward them later in the future, not be defeated or discouraged. They are here to learn and it is the job of their mentor to be supportive and help them through difficult events.
So, in my opinion, the answer to my question is to never be on the offensive. Do the best you can, be supportive, be realistic, and get to know your mentee and what kind of mentor they respond to. Some like black and white. Some like more laid back. But all like supportive and encouraging. Just always remember this for the future.