A quest for the perfect mentor might be doomed from the start – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try
Naturejobs journalism competition winner Eileen Parkes
Having spent years trying to find the perfect mentor, I’ve learned there is more to mentorship than first appears.
Mentorship is given when someone with expertise and experience takes an aspiring scientist under their wing, to share their knowledge and advice, and to provide support and guidance in career development. It is distinct from coaching, or sponsorship, where the coach can give critical feedback or a sponsor may intervene directly in a protégé’s career. Importantly, mentorship is driven by the mentee, who should define their own needs for mentorship and career development.
I trained as a medical oncologist, working as a full-time clinician for nearly ten years before beginning my PhD in molecular biology. The concept of mentorship in medicine, which echoes the older apprenticeship model of medical training, is only now coming back into fashion in the UK. Coming from a clinical background and joining the academic world, the idea of a mentor was new to me.
It seemed to me that finding the perfect mentor was key to my success in research. In my quest for “the one” I have signed up for every mentoring programme I can find – university-run schemes, peer-mentoring programmes, “meet a mentor” sessions at international conferences, as well as pursuing informal mentorship opportunities. Here’s my advice to anyone looking for a mentor.
Have an idea of what you want to get from the mentoring relationship. I had one hugely successful mentor who made time for me and encouraged me to direct the programme – but I didn’t set my own goals. A lack of clear aims meant that neither of us really knew what we were achieving. I quickly learned that if I set at least one goal for a meeting, or one issue which needed some clear-headed input, I gained a lot more.
I am at a stage in life, with two small children in tow, where travelling the world isn’t hugely practical. I would be drawn into discussions with a mentor about opportunities to broaden my horizons, which would have been tempting but just weren’t possible. By being upfront about my familial priorities I gained much more from a mentoring relationship, and was able to focus on what I can do here and now for career development, parking those broader horizons for another time.
Don’t give up at one unanswered email. The overwhelming majority of those intimidating experts are only too eager to share their experience, and answer specific questions. But most receive hundreds of emails per day. Be specific in what you want to ask and send a good email. Follow up, suggest an opportunity for meeting, get that face-to-face time and make the most of it.
There is no perfect mentor
As one of my mentors put it, “I was mentored by A for moving labs, B for my academic progression, C for my research, and D for advice on setting up collaborations.” There is no single person who will meet every mentoring need. Find a number of mentors and play to their strengths. Don’t limit yourself to one person.
Realising I could be mentored by many people, and pick up and set down relationships with mentors, was a lightbulb moment. I now have a network of mentors and my research is all the richer for it. In my heart, I still imagine I will find “the one” but for now I’m learning so much from my network I can’t imagine committing. Keep looking, and maybe you’ll discover it’s not about finding the perfect mentor but becoming a better mentee.
Eileen Parkes is a clinical post-doctoral researcher at Queen’s University Belfast, working on understanding the immune response to DNA damage. She loves spending time with family, using social media to talk science, and experimenting with cooking. Keen to connect over science, find her at Twitter and LinkedIn.