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Why It’s Good to Have a Mentor – or Two
”If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants” – Newton
Mentoring, a personal one-on-one relationship between a more experienced or knowledgeable person and someone less experienced, is increasingly recognized as a critical element in supporting successful careers in academic research in scientific disciplines, particularly for trainees and early career investigators from underrepresented backgrounds. Amazingly, alarmingly high numbers of early career researchers report not having had any form of mentoring over the course of their academic career, and very few take part in a formal mentoring scheme as a mentee. If you are one of these, something needs to be done about it because you are missing out!
“Having a good mentor early in one’s career can mean the difference between success and failure in any career.” (Lee, 2007)
Effective mentoring has been found to contribute more to a PhD student’s overall satisfaction with their PhD program than any other factor, but, really, it should continue way beyond this time as it will add value throughout your career. Established researchers consistently hold the view that their mentors provided them with the best form of support during their research career. They give their mentors credit for having helped them establish good and effective networks, for identifying opportunities for funding or publishing, and for assistance with goal setting. They are consistently grateful for the clear-eyed views that helped them sort out issues with their work. In short, their mentors helped them push their career along.
If you don’t have a mentor, you should decide you need one, preferably today. A good mentor, who has your interests at heart, is going to be able to offer you sound independent advice, untainted by local politics, and a big picture approach to your career. It is a great benefit to receive encouragement to follow your own ideas (with a bit of guidance) and to have an independent person to read your written work and offer editorial advice. As the relationship develops, your mentor might offer the opportunity to widen your network and introduce you to her contacts; you might learn a different approach from the skills and techniques available in your workplace.
“My mentor is superb! He gave exactly the advice I need and we will meet often in the future.” – Researcher, 7 years postdoc
First, identify your needs. Draft a list of things you want to know more about and aim to fill in the gaps. Do you need help with finding funding? Writing? Working out the best career path? Finding the right balance between work and family responsibilities? You might need help coping with cultural transitions after a move from a different part of the world, or, too often, with opposing ethnic or gender bias. Interestingly, established researchers mention that they have had numerous mentors along the way, different mentors for different purposes. You might benefit from more than one mentor, depending on your gaps.
Of course, you need to find an appropriate person to help you with these problems. How do you go about finding this treasure? It’s best to have a mentor from outside your institution, or at least your department, so they can be free from local politics. If your institution doesn’t have a formal mentoring scheme in place, start by asking your supervisor or head of school for suggestions. When you are at inter-departmental meetings or conferences, keep an eye out for senior researchers whose style appeals to you. Introduce yourself and have a conversation. If it feels right, ask around about the person and see what sort of reputation she has. Look up her research profile, track record, and current areas of interest. If all is lining up well, approach your prospective mentor and ask if she would be willing to consider mentoring you. If yes, send in your CV and a link to your profile page so that she can learn a little about you before agreeing. Describe your area of interest briefly and your personal goals.
Do remember to discuss your proposed mentor with your supervisor. This is important, so that you are not going behind your supervisor’s back. It also matters in case there is a history between them that you would otherwise be unaware of.
“She was very helpful to talk to. She understood some of the pressures I am under with my current supervisor and team. I felt I could talk freely and be completely honest with her.” – Researcher, 3 years postdoc
Mentoring is a two-way street, so don’t be shy about asking. The mentor, too, has much to gain. They will get satisfaction from helping you , but mentoring will also keep them up to date and build their network and provide opportunities for collaboration.
You’ll get the most out of your relationship with your mentor if you follow some basic courtesies. You need to be a good mentee. Start with these rules:
- Be on time
- Send material in advance
- Take or at least listen to the advice you are given
- Ask your mentor to explain their expectations
- Respect the demands on your adviser’s schedule
- Respond to emails promptly and politely
- Take notes in your meetings
- Confirm what you need to do next
It is smart to prepare some questions in advance of your first scary meeting so you can avoid sitting there looking blank. Here are some suggestions:
- Can you tell me about your career path? How did you get to where you are?
- What would you do differently?
- Could you review my CV and provide a frank assessment of gaps and weaknesses?
- Could you help me develop/review my career plan?
- What types of outcomes/performance indicators should I be aiming for at my career stage?
- What new skills do I need to move ahead?
- What advice would you give on leading a balanced life?
Later you can get to the question that mentors love:
- How can I help you?
“Both mentors have been very supportive and gave me important information about several laboratories that helped me find the right lab for me”- Researcher, 3 years postdoc
Always remember your mentor isn’t there to do the work for you. He’s there for discussion and guidance, and for listening. He’ll help sort troubles and give independent advice
This is a quote from Adrian Lee in “Nature’s Guide to Mentors” sums it up:
“When you get a good mentor, and treat him/her well, you have them for life” – Lee, A. (2007). Nature’s Guide to Mentors. Nature, 447, 791-797.
If you find this story stimulating, you may be interested in browsing more content within this book on ScienceDirect. We are pleased to offer you a free chapter – access this content by clicking on this link – People Management: For Yourself and Your Team
About the book
Keys to Running Successful Research Projects: All the Things They Never Teach You provides a step-by-step guide for the management of a successful research project or program. Links throughout provide more detailed information from gold standard sources on every topic.
- Covers the nuts and bolts of research management in the life sciences, medical and health fields
- Provides simple solutions to issues that come up on the job
- Ensures that hard-fought for money is spent wisely and well
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About the author
Katherine Christian has worked in health and medical research for over 30 years, mostly for organizations conducting and supporting cancer research. Scientifically trained, she has chosen not to work in a laboratory, but to use her scientific background and a flair for organization to manage research projects and assist scientists with the management of their research. Her objectives have included providing environments and skills which encourage effective, efficient research and to encourage and facilitate communication about that successful research to all stakeholders. The nature of her work has involved Kate with many early-career researchers in a range of disciplines, and she has developed skills in teaching them how to manage themselves, their research and their careers. Now, having built up a body of expertise over many years, Kate is seeking to take this learning further by undertaking a higher degree. This is focusing on the challenges faced by early-career researchers in the sciences, and looking for opportunities to address some of them. This book provides one such tool.
Biomedicine & Biochemistry
The disciplines of biomedicine and biochemistry impact the lives of millions of people every day. Research in these areas has led to practical applications in cardiology, cancer treatment, respiratory medicine, drug development, and more. Interdisciplinary fields of study, including neuroscience, chemical engineering, nanotechnology, and psychology come together in this research to yield significant new discoveries. Elsevier’s biomedicine and biochemistry content spans a wide range of subject matter in various forms, including journals, books, eBooks, and online information services, enabling students, researchers, and clinicians to advance these fields. Learn more about our Biomedical and Biochemistry books here.