Students working in a lab with a faculty mentor.

The science of mentorship

GSE researcher examines minoritized STEM postdocs’ experiences with faculty mentors

BY DANIELLE LEGARE

A recent study by a University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education researcher explored the mentorship practices valued most by minoritized STEM postdoctoral researchers, including women, people of color and individuals with international status.

Portrait of Tiffany Noel-Karalis.

The study found that regular meetings about responsibilities, conversations about short- and long-term career goals, and interactions with junior faculty who are open to innovative ideas are among the most valued practices used by principal investigators (PIs) when mentoring minoritized postdocs.

Employing these mentorship practices can cultivate inclusive academic communities within STEM higher education and mutually beneficial relationships between postdocs and PIs.  

“Using social exchange theory to examine minoritized STEM postdocs’ experiences with faculty mentoring relationships” was published in December 2021 in Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education by Tiffany Karalis Noel, GSE clinical assistant professor of learning and instruction, with co-researchers Monica Lynn Miles of Columbia University and Padmashree Rida of Purdue University.  

The researchers used an instrumental case study to learn from 31 minoritized STEM postdocs studying at a research university in the southeast U.S. The narratives shared by the postdocs allowed the researchers to identify and analyze examples of direct, generalized and productive mentoring exchanges.  

Karalis Noel, who is also the director of doctoral studies at GSE, wanted to embark on this research after noticing that all postdocs do not necessarily have the same positive mentoring relationships that she once had. “I was fortunate and privileged to have a really good postdoc experience. This research is to honor those who have not had those experiences, and to work to change those practices and take a hard look at those systems,” she said.  

Minoritized STEM postdocs may face cultural challenges, racial and ethnic stereotypes, and limited professional development without meaningful mentorship.

By elevating the voices and experiences of minoritized STEM postdocs, Karalis Noel hopes this research will show other postdocs that they’re not alone in difficult experiences they may be encountering with their PIs.

Karalis Noel also hopes the research will encourage PIs to understand minoritized STEM postdocs’ goals and work with them to tailor professional and academic experiences to their unique needs.

“Faculty and others in supervisory roles and academic administration need to take the time to understand the unique experiences of minoritized STEM postdocs which are too often overlooked or maybe dismissed, whether intentionally or not. This research asks higher education professionals to take a hard look and ask, ‘Am I maybe, albeit unintentionally, perpetuating these issues in my own mentoring practices?’”  

Distilled from the same study, Karalis Noel, Miles and Rida co-authored an additional article: ”Stressed-out of STEM: Examining Mentoring Experiences of Women, People of Color, and International Postdocs.” The article was published in April 2022 in Educational Studies and further illuminates issues of power in faculty-postdoc relationships.

“Right now, institutions are looking for paradigm shifts and cultural shifts. There are many mission and vision statements about being student-centered and transforming toward equity, diversity, justice and inclusion in practice. Those sentiments are great, but they also need to manifest in action that can be felt by students, faculty, staff and other university stakeholders,” said Karalis Noel. “I think one of the ways that it manifests in action is when a postdoc can confidently say, ‘I have a great relationship with my faculty mentor, my mentor looks out for me and my mentor knows me beyond the work that I do in the lab.’”

The research findings inform Karalis Noel’s mentorship and advising practices with GSE students.

Her advisees are grateful for her approach. Dina Skeffrey, a doctoral student in the Department of Learning and Instruction, describes the mentorship she received from Karalis Noel as a blessing.

“She listens, understands and gets you to where you need to be. She’s definitely great at mentoring,” said Skeffrey. “She’s a great coach and cheerleader. She feels like family.”