Communication: A Key to Team Success

 August 30, 2017

Often in graduate school we find ourselves living in our own worlds within our separate departments. Over the course of five sessions, however, our assigned group formed a team as we participated in the Emerging Leaders Institute (ELI). ELI provides invaluable leadership development skills to a diverse group of graduate students and postdocs. One of the key aspects of the ELI program is that it divides participants into interdisciplinary teams that work together on a project to solve an issue that affects graduate students and postdocs. Here’s how our assigned group became a team and developed a project that will help mentees communicate more effectively with their mentors.

Getting to Know the Team

After our first session, we quickly realized that our small team of three was incredibly diverse, hailing from different departments and programs. We were all at different stages of our graduate careers with different research and academic interests. We began gaining knowledge about our individual strengths, and through the process of learning about each other we were able to assess our collective strengths as a team. This insight was invaluable when we began to work on a topic we all identified as important for graduate students and postdocs: Advice for the New Mentee.

By individually taking the StrengthsFinder assessment through the ELI program, we realized that we had more in common than we originally thought. As it turns out, we were a team of strategic thinkers and executors. Additionally, our team lacked strong skills in influencing, which was not a big surprise for us, individually. We quickly learned that communication skills were of prime importance to work together effectively, enabling us to share and agree upon ideas. Good communication would also help us overcome our lack of influencing skills, to efficiently complete our tasks and effect change in our departments through our project.

During ELI, we had the opportunity to each take a StrengthsFinder assessment. We then compared our strengths as shown above. We have a lot of similarities!

Building Communication Skills

There were three main things we did at our initial meeting that helped us communicate with one another. First, we got to know each other. We found out which departments we represent, what our interests are, and what our schedules are like. This information helped us to understand each others’ motivations and get a sense of what responsibilities we had outside ELI. Second, we created a set of standards regarding how we would communicate with each other. Scheduling and sharing progress were best done over email, while brainstorming and assigning tasks were best done in person, on Tuesdays at Twinnie’s. Third, by understanding our individual strengths and how we worked with the group, we were able to come up with a way to work most efficiently with one another. As a team we worked best when we could collaboratively outline and approve ideas and then individually complete specific tasks. The small steps that we took to improve our communication helped us to stay on task and meet our deadlines.

For some people, communicating effectively comes naturally. But for many mentees, including both graduate students and postdocs, communicating with their mentors/advisors was a key issue. We hoped to address this problem with our project. Through our meetings we learned that effective communication takes effort, but good communication is necessary for relationships to be productive. Together, we created a resource we hope will help other graduate students and postdocs to be proactive in communicating with their mentors and foster good communication throughout their professional relationships.

Our Team Project

We first interviewed our Directors of Graduate Studies (DGSs) and administered a survey to graduate students and postdocs in our four departments to discover the main issues in the mentor/mentee relationship. Among over 100 responses, 48% of respondents listed issues with communication and unclear expectations as the main source of conflict with their mentors. Based on the DGSs’ input and the survey responses, we created an online guide called “Advice for the New Mentee” that aims to help new mentees establish a good relationship with their mentors and improve communication. This resource can be downloaded from the link above and filled in electronically, for ease of use. 

Advice for the new mentee
Advice for the New Mentee provides a series of questions for mentees to consider and discuss with their mentors. It has been distributed to four departments.

The guide has two parts. The first contains advice for mentees doing scientific research, including an overview of the nature of science research and relevant “best practices” when facing challenges and disappointment. This information helps new mentees share common student experiences regarding research with mentors. The first section also provides other essential information. For example, it details different types of management styles and provides example questions that can help mentees identify their mentor’s management styles. This information will help mentees understand what interactions with mentors may look like. Consequently, mentees may feel more empowered to develop a successful mentor/mentee relationship.

The second part of the guide is an open-ended questionnaire that will help mentees assess their needs. By answering the questionnaire, mentees will reflect on their own expectations for mentor support, communication, and time management. Mentees can then discuss the results of the questionnaire with their mentors. The questionnaire is designed as a conversation starter. It is important that mentees and mentors reach a consensus about their expectations for each other. The second part of the guide can help guide mentors and mentors as they exchange ideas and develop ways to clearly and efficiently communicate with one another.

After distributing the guide to our departments, we received emails from our colleagues thanking us for making this useful resource. We hope this guide will be used widely in the future and help more mentees.

It was an invaluable experience working with team members with different backgrounds and strengths to achieve a common project goal in six weeks. We thank ELI and Assistant Dean Melissa Bostrom for providing such a great opportunity. For our ELI team project, this is the end. But for our leadership development, this is only the beginning.


Annie Jeong, Ph.D.

Ph.D.'17, Genetics and Genomics

Annie earned her Ph.D. in the University Program for Genetics and Genomics and the Department of Biology. She studies the genetic basis of adaptations to copper-contaminated soils in plants. She has enjoyed teaching, mentoring, and working to improve graduate education during her time at Duke and through the ELI program. 


Nadine Sanchez
Nadine Sanchez

Master's student, Global Health 

Nadine is a second-year student in the Master’s of Science Global Health program. She is looking forward to her summer fieldwork project with the Duke Global Neurosurgery and Neurology (DGNN) division. Her project aims to characterize the prevalence of epilepsy in Uganda.


Renpeng Gu

Ph.D. student, Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science

Renpeng is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science. His current research is focused on engineering biomaterials for targeted drug delivery. He hopes to invent novel technologies and discover new materials that can enhance quality of people’s life. He also enjoys photography and drawing.