The meandering path to a career in science offers challenges that can be difficult to confront alone. Finding an effective mentor who offers advice and inspiration can help you navigate the maze successfully, say Andrew Gaudet and Laura Fonken.
Completing doctoral or postdoctoral training can be similar to an extended hike through a forest. After hiking for hours, you may stand disoriented at a fork in the trail. Which path is preferable – the path that goes over the hill, or that which traverses the creek? What is the remaining distance and difficulty of the terrain? Answering these questions would be a lot easier with a park guide, who has walked these trails many times and can help you complete the hike based on your interests and skills.
Similarly, an effective mentor can help you navigate the path to a successful career in science. A mentor is someone who advises or trains; this person could be your direct supervisor or they could be someone outside your department and university. Effective mentors can inspire quality work, accelerate their mentees’ completion of a program, and successfully support them in achieving their own leadership positions. Spending time defining your own goals, strengths, and weaknesses will allow you to identify and secure a mentor that boosts your success. Here are our 10 tips for finding your own effective mentor.
1. Consider your career trajectory.
As a graduate student or postdoc, you may decide to pursue a faculty position. Or perhaps industry or teaching capture your interest? What do you want to do? What benchmarks are required to achieve your ideal position (e.g degrees, publications, classes taught, etc)?
2. Relative to your current situation and ideal career, define your strengths and weaknesses.
Is time management an issue? Do you have difficultly balancing multiple projects? Do you have communication problems with labmates? Defining these could help identify your needs in a mentor.
3. Explore beliefs, behaviours, and characteristics held by your ideal mentor.
A mentor is someone who advises or trains. So it is not necessary that a mentor be your friend. Further, your own lab advisor may or may not be the best mentor for you, particularly if you are interested in another career path. Given your own beliefs, strengths, and weaknesses, what do you hope your mentor will bring to the table? In what areas do you need advice and encouragement?
4. Identify potential mentors with expertise to help you navigate your career path.
Perhaps you are considering a career beyond academia, or would like another academic mentor to complement your own supervisor’s mentorship? Seek leaders with knowledge in your area of interest.
5. Contact potential mentors, whether or not you have a personal connection.
Most people are receptive to helping others. It could begin with an “information interview” – an informal discussion over coffee to understand their position and experience. Although not everyone will be appropriate or available, meeting potential mentors could help define your career interests.
6. Determine whether your prospective mentor has helped others in your field succeed.
If interested in pursuing faculty positions, has your prospective mentor supervised others who have achieved the position? If searching for industry jobs, has your prospective mentor helped others find leadership positions in the field? If your mentor has helped others succeed, it suggests they are well equipped to help you achieve your goals.
7. Communicate with past trainees from a prospective mentor’s lab.
Solicit feedback from people who previously worked with your prospective mentor to understand their mentoring style. Prepare a list of questions so that you get specific feedback about key issues. Also, be ready to read between the lines: most people maintain an optimistic perspective about past mentors; take note if any negatives are introduced as these issues could affect your mentor-mentee relationship.
8. Create and refine goals.
Creating goals and assessing progress are critical. Discussing these with your mentor – and directing them towards your career aspirations – will ensure success.
9. Define a strategy that holds you accountable and enables success.
Meeting regularly for check-ins and discussions will hold you accountable and maintain your mentor-mentee relationship. We have found this effective: in a previous lab, weekly one-on-one meetings with a mentor provided time for data updates and allowed for discussions on lab- and career-related issues.
10. Be understanding and grateful.
If you have found an effective mentor, they are dedicating some of their time to helping you succeed. If they cancel a meeting, be understanding. To express your gratitude for their help, give them hand-written thank you cards or small, thoughtful gifts (e.g., at holidays or after writing reference letters).
Finding an effective mentor can provide value that cannot be quantified. Effective mentors have already navigated these challenges, have helped others succeed, and will be conscientious in helping you achieve. They will check in regularly and motivate you to do your best.
Training in the sciences is a long, winding trail that is mentally taxing and reveals difficult choices. Putting in time to find an appropriate mentor could help you find your best path.
Andrew Gaudet and Laura Fonken are postdocs at the University of Colorado Boulder. Andrew studies neuroinflammation and regeneration after nervous system trauma. Laura explores the relationship between neuroinflammation, circadian rhythms, and ageing.