Generation Gaps Matter for Students Seeking Hotshot Mentors
Isaac Newton laid the blueprints for his three laws of motion, still recited by physics students, in 1666.
Credit: Library of Congress

Students seeking success should look for mentors among rising young stars instead of established big names in their field, according to the first large-scale study of mentorship.

Such findings might also extend beyond academia to business, the military and the arts, if future studies of mentorship come up with similar results.

An exhaustive family tree of mathematicians dating back to Isaac Newton allowed researchers to study a sample of 7,259 mathematicians who graduated between 1900 and 1960. The networking data showed that successful academics did a much better job mentoring students during the first third of their careers, rather than the last third of their careers.

"What we observe is that when protégés select mentors who are relatively young prospective hotshots, they in turn become hotshots themselves," said Dean Malmgren, a chemical and biological engineer at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

By contrast, students who hoped to ride the coattails of a big shot mentor late in that person's career fared less well. Students trained by mathematicians who were in the first third of his or her career went on to train 29 percent more students than expected, while students trained by mathematicians in the last third of his or her career went on to train 31 percent fewer students than expected.

Success was measured by membership in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, as well as the number of publications.

How mentorship works

The pattern proved itself as a consistently strong signal across the decades and not just a flash in the pan, Malmgren said. He suspected that the amount of face time a mentor can spend with students has much to do with the different mentorship results, even if the study did not assess the exact causes behind the patterns.

"My personal take is that it has a lot to do with the time you spend on students," Malmgren told LiveScience. "More [late-career] responsibilities mean that mentors spend less time mentoring students."

In addition, mentors with fewer students had protégés who went on to train 37 percent more students than on average, suggesting there is a link between time and later success for mentees.

Mathematics provides a "clean" look at mentorship with fewer entangled interests of mentors and students, in part because math mentoring seems unusually altruistic, the researchers say. Math mentors don't get co-author credit on student publications, which is highly unusual in the world of academia.

In that sense, mathematics as a field represented the "perfect laboratory for studying mentorship," according to Luís Amaral, chemical and biological engineer at Northwestern University and study team member.

Teachers in time

Whether or not these mentorship findings apply to the more distant past in the time of Isaac Newton – not to mention ancient scholars such as Archimedes, Pythagoras and Hypatia – remains unknown. Malmgren pointed out such scientists in the 1900s did have access to trains, ships and planes so they could travel around the world to study with the best.

For now, the researchers have already begun looking beyond the Mathematics Geneology Project to dissertation databases for many other academic fields. And they eventually hope to understand how mentorship works in areas beyond academics.

"Academia is a nice setting, particularly mathematics, because there's a very structured mentor-protégé relationship," Malmgren explained. "In an office, you might have someone you report to, but you might also have constant feedback from other peers or office managers."

The study is detailed in the June 3 issue of the journal Nature.