Mentor and Project Selection

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Students accepted into the NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program (OxCam) conduct biomedical research under a dual-mentored system with a mentor at the NIH and a mentor at either the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge. The student develops and drives their thesis research project under the guidance of both mentors and spends equal time between the two labs conducting research.

Initiating the Mentor Selection Process

It is critical to establish a project that is appropriate for you and that involves two mentors who appreciate the collaborative nature of the program. It is also crucial that the research environment created by the mentors in their laboratories is compatible with your personality, interests, and goals. There are some restrictions on who can serve as a suitable mentor:

  • NIH mentors must hold tenure track or tenured positions, control independent resources, and have obtained approval by their respective Institute’s Scientific Director.
  • NIH staff scientists and postdoctoral staff may not serve as mentors, but can assist in the training of students.
  • Faculty at Oxford and Cambridge must meet the University rules for accepting responsibility for graduate students. 

Strategies for Mentor Selection

While researching and talking to different prospective mentors for your research project you should consider the type of mentoring and lab environment that would suit your preference. 
Some points to consider:

  • Is there room in this lab?  In general, there is no sense in getting too far into the conversation if a PI is overwhelmed with people or short on research funds.
  • How interested am I in this topic?
  • How much previous lab experience is needed to get the project going?
  • Would I rather start an entirely new project or springboard off an existing one?
  • What type of supervision do I want?  How much autonomy? How “hands-on” are the mentors?
  • What size lab am I looking for? Larger and more diverse in its research projects or smaller and more cohesive?
  • Have the mentors worked with students before? If so, what were their outcomes (time to graduation, post-grad jobs, etc.)?
  • Is the individual’s rate of publishing consistent with established standards?  Are the person’s findings being published in highly regarded journals?  (Note-not every publication has to come out in Science, Nature or Cell).

There are no correct answers and one student may want a mentor with a very hands-on approach, while another may want more independence. It may be difficult to identify mentors who share both your scientific interests and your attitude towards an ideal work environment, but attempt to strike the best balance possible.

Additionally, it is vital to consider that most of your time will be spent with other lab personnel and not with the mentor. All students are strongly encouraged to visit labs and speak with scientists working in the lab, especially other students. In order to best ensure your success and satisfaction with your education, you should ask the following questions:

  • How independently do most individuals and, in particular, students function in the lab?
  • Are lab members generally cooperative or competitive?  Attend a lab meeting if possible to get a sense of the group dynamics.
  • Are there adequate resources for effective research?
  • How have past graduate students faired in this lab?
  • Is the mentor available and involved when needed?
  • Are the current lab members enthusiastic about the lab?

In answering these questions, your potential future lab mates can give you the "inside story" on how the research group functions, helping you determine whether or not the environment is appropriate for you.

If designing your own project, it is helpful to identify one mentor first. You can then work with him/her to identify and approach a collaborator or colleague at the other institution to be your co-mentor and establish a research project. Keep in mind that U.K. scientists are accustomed to a system that students apply and interview for available positions that they create. They are used to exercising a high degree of control over the selection process, so you should be mindful of this cultural difference and try not to appear too pushy or aggressive.

It is important that both mentors understand that the collaborative project is for the benefit of both research programs. Both mentors should be enthusiastic to see the project succeed.

Developing a Research Proposal

During the months of August and September, students are at the NIH campus to develop and write their research proposals. Projects should be discussed in detail with both mentors, paying particular attention to the breakdown of specific work to be accomplished overseas and at the NIH and to how the different project components can be successfully integrated. Under guidance of their mentors, the student develops a specific research proposal, 5 to 10 pages long that describes the project, provides a brief timeline, and delineates which parts of the work will be carried out in which locations. Once the student and the mentors have come to a mutual agreement on the project and its particulars, both mentors and the student will sign off on the project description that will be submitted to the student’s Class Dean for approval.

Collaborating Successfully

The student plays the crucial role of ensuring the collaborative plan is effectively implemented. Communication with your mentors is essential to success in the program. Keep both mentors regularly informed of your research progress through regular emails and conference calls.

Do not enter into a project thinking you will be working solo with one mentor for two years, then show up in the other lab to start working for another two years; the project must be structured so that it represents an ongoing collaboration between both research groups.


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