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Christine Charvet
Careers and professional development, Developmental, Teaching and learning

Learning from experienced mentors

Christine Charvet has found this engenders success: how can we scale it?

03 January 2023

Knowledge of expectations is vital to academic career success, but many students do not have access to relevant guidance. Here, I offer solutions for long-term change in the way we help students navigate the educational system. I discuss how broad dissemination of academic expectations can help many students from diverse backgrounds. I outline the benefits of learning from experienced mentors to accomplish set goals.

In my career, I trained in the fields of genetics, neuroimaging, psychology, and comparative neuroscience. I grew an integrative research programme at the intersection of neuroimaging and genetics as a faculty at Delaware State University and now at Auburn University. In the process, I have learned from experts in diverse fields and from inspiring leaders of social and educational change. My mentors have enabled me to accomplish my goals, become a better scientist, and they have shaped my mentoring philosophy.

The need for a mentor

My strategy to get into graduate school was a flop. I grew up in France and I moved to the USA when I was 16. The move was an exciting start, concomitant with a wealth of opportunities. In college, I was unaware of the requirements for admittance into graduate schools. In my third year as an undergraduate student at UCLA, I realised my true passion was comparative and behavioural neuroscience. I decided to pursue a career as a neuroscientist. I thought that good grades would get me into a top graduate programme. When I first applied to graduate school, I had a high GPA and I was confident that I would collect many opportunities. I realised late that there are many other experiences and qualifications expected of successful PhD students. Hands-on experiences in a laboratory, presentations at conferences, and authorships of articles are key to building up a competitive portfolio for entry into top graduate programmes. The lesson I learned is to seek out mentors early on who will ensure you are on the path to accomplishing your goal.

The fact that many of us do not understand academic expectations suggests we could make long-term changes to the way we help early career scientists navigate academia.

Throughout my career, I have encountered many individuals who are unaware of academic expectations, and I’ve seen many examples where enhanced communication of expectations could go a long way to help many students achieve their goals. For example, I have met postdoctoral researchers who do not articulate how their research programme is innovative and fundable, which are key recipes to landing a tenure-track position. I have also taught many first-generation undergraduate students who are not aware of the benefits in engaging in research experiences to build competitive applications for entry in medical and graduate programmes.

My advice to find a mentor who can help you navigate the academic system holds true regardless of career stage. The fact that many of us do not understand academic expectations suggests we could make long-term changes to the way we help early career scientists navigate academia. I hope to inspire senior researchers to make changes in mentorship.

Inequality in access to mentorship

Improving how we mentor students can have a big impact on student success, and novel approaches to mentoring could help alleviate education inequity. I have been a mentor to many first-generation college students. Inevitably, first-generation college students and others who lack a role model or mentor are the most disadvantaged by lack of a mentor at home. These inequalities in mentorships warrant a change in the way we approach mentoring.

We are working to harness modes of mass communication to broadly disseminate academic expectations. Thanks to an exciting partnership with Digital Trends Media Group, we are supporting diversity initiatives to help students navigate college. Specifically, we are creating an advertisement campaign to inform students that participating in undergraduate research experiences can help them successfully transition to graduate and medical school. Reaching students who may not have much one-on-one guidance to navigate the higher education system may help diverse students, and create increased equity in educational opportunities. Unveiling the hidden curriculum by broadly disseminating the importance of research and education programmes is a crucial part of helping students accomplish their goals.

About the author

Christine Charvet is an Assistant Professor at Auburn University. She received her PhD in neuroscience from the University of California and subsequently trained in neuroimaging at Boston Children’s Hospital and statistical genetics at Cornell University. Christine has participated in many efforts to enhance diversity in sciences.