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What does it take to be a mentor?

Let’s talk career with Naturejobs

Beginning this week, Indigenus will bring you some interesting and relevant posts from sister blog Naturejobs, a leading online resource for scientists in academia and industry who seek guidance in developing their careers. The blog delivers a mix of expert advice and personal stories to help readers review, set and achieve their career goals.

We kick off with a guest blog by Nirmala Hariharan, an adjunct assistant professor at UC Davis’ School of Medicine, where she mentors in and researches molecular signalling pathways for basic cardiovascular sciences.

Being a great M.E.N.T.O.R will help you just as much as your students, says Nirmala Hariharan

Guest contributor Nirmala Hariharan

Mentoring is one of the most crucial roles played by faculty on a day to day basis. As a mentor, you provide scientific and technical guidance, and serve as the pillar of support for your team of students, postdocs and trainees. Mentoring can consume a lot of your time, and be very demanding, but has several long term benefits that will help you run a successful lab. Here’s what a great M.E.N.T.O.R provides for their students.

Nirmala Hariharan

Nirmala Hariharan

Motivation. You’re the constant source of motivation for your team; you need to see the big picture and guide your team through the ups and downs. You’re the leader that inspires excellence and encourages scientific innovation. As a good mentor, you must recognise the true potential of your mentees – even if they don’t – and know how to bring out the best in them. In short, you should make them realise what they’re capable of.

Emotional Support and Connection. As a mentor, you need to provide emotional support to your mentees as they struggle to find their place in science. Career decisions are strongly impacted by the irregularities of life generally, so be willing to discuss and share incidents from your life that helped you tackle problems in science, and balance your personal life with your work.

Connecting with your mentees on an emotional and personal level helps them recognise that you’re available when they need support and encourages them to reach out when they need it. An emotional connection helps in building a mutually beneficial, professional relationship of respect and friendship, which will hopefully last for many years.

Networking. One of the most important roles of a mentor is to help mentees build strong professional relationships by introducing them to your own network. Conferences are fantastic avenues to network, and giving credit to your mentee and directly introducing them to your friends and colleagues has tremendous advantages for both of you.

Teaching. A good mentor has to be a good teacher. Your day to day tasks will include teaching experimental procedure, scientific concepts and writing, and helping with data analysis and general troubleshooting. Mentoring requires tremendous patience and – importantly – also requires allowing your mentees to make mistakes and learn from them themselves.

Opportunities for Career Growth. Providing opportunities for your mentee’s career growth is extremely important, so make sure to discuss goals often, and encourage mentees to think about their progress.

There are many ways you can provide opportunities for career development to your students – review their CV and professional materials, encourage them to apply for awards that demonstrate their excellence, discuss potential job opportunities and alternative career choices, and teach them how to excel at self-promotion. The more your mentees grow in their careers, the more satisfaction and recognition you’ll get for being an awesome mentor.

Role model. Ultimately to be a good mentor you have to be an excellent role model. Practice what you preach, demonstrate integrity in your professional and personal interactions, and show by example how to balance work and life. Be resilient, handle rejections, efficiently manage time and make sure to be a caring mentor.

It’s never too early to learn how to mentor – start now if you haven’t already. Mentoring is different from classroom teaching and requires hours of personal interaction. Getting over your inhibitions or issues with communication are important to excel as a mentor. Have patience and keep developing as you mentor people with different personalities. Remember it takes time to build trust with your mentee and you’ll get better with time and practice. Get feedback, and take suggestions and negative critiques seriously, so you can improve.

Being a mentor means being a ‘Guru’, a Sanskrit word that literally means ‘one who dispels darkness’ – a person that shows the way to pure knowledge. Mentoring is one of the most rewarding and exciting aspects of being a faculty member. Enjoy the ride because the more you give, the more you get back.

[Originally posted on 01 Feb 2016 | Naturejobs]


  1. Report this comment

    Frank Yao said:

    I came from a scientific background too and this post is particularly interesting to me. Of course, I ventured on through life, abandoning my studies to something else. How I wish I had a mentor in my co-op, schooling days.

    I think many students panic because there were no job outlooks, or do not see the light at the end of a tunnel. Having a professional mentor in your field of study can help hone your area of expertise, or areas you can work on. The more you hack at it, the better and more knowledgeable you become.

    Knowledge eventually translates into wealth.

    From a nutritionist, I hopped onto trades to become a concrete contractor. I recognize that there are a lot of young blood in the trade industry actively looking for someone to guide them, to better their trades skills. Why can’t this be the same in the scientific community. Instead of a lab rat, we can do more to cultivate an atmosphere of curiosity around the lab.

    It is so easy to be focused on our research, network with the students, connect with them and teach them about the future of scientific community!