The latest Soapbox Science mini-series focuses on the role of mentors in science. Tying in with this year’s Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting, where almost 600 young scientists have the opportunity to meet each other and 25 Nobel laureates, we’ll be looking at the importance of supportive relationships and role models. We’ll hear from a mix of mentors, mentees and projects set up to support scientists and we aim to explore not just the positive examples of good mentoring but what can happen when these key relationships are absent or break down. For more discussions around this year’s Lindau meeting, check out the Lindau Nobel Community site.
The Lindau meeting of Nobel Laureates and young scientists highlights a specific area of interest and concern: that of providing mentors for the next generation. As defined by the Oxford Online Dictionary, mentor means, as a noun: an experienced and trusted advisor; or as a verb: to advise or train. However, with the current climate of challenges, where research budgets are routinely being slashed, while at the same time, the pressure to publish more papers in the highest possible rated journals continues to increase, the ability of researchers to properly mentor their students can suffer. On occasion, problems in the student-mentor relationship can arise as a result of more personal reasons. Often, a poor mentor can lead to students abandoning their chosen path of science, or even the discipline in general.
I can speak from personal experience as to just how frustrating and disheartening poor guidance can be when starting out on a scientific career. My first major project was in the area of inorganic chemistry. It involved being given a page of structures for new compounds; guidance was in the form of my supervisor saying ,“You need to make something. Let me know when you’ve got data.” Time wore on and progress was very slow (I found out later that the synthetic route proposed was not viable). Self-doubt increased and I questioned whether or not I was in any way proficient, or even capable of a scientific career.
When things go badly, especially when it seems as if there’s no progress being made at all, a real temptation to quit arises. However, I was very fortunate to have good support from family, friends and colleagues, through whom I have learnt several concepts which I consider invaluable. The following are some suggestions based on this experience that may prove useful for surviving a “hostile post-graduate experience.”
- Mentor replacement. So, your primary mentor isn’t as helpful as you like or need? Support from someone knowledgeable in his/her work is still necessary. Finding someone willing to help you when you’ve reached an impasse is both a huge time saver, and helps to calm tensions. He or she doesn’t have to replace your mentor completely, and the more people with a wider skill range to help you, the better. For example, I received help from members of the technical staff and fellow students when I had to learn new techniques, and received moral support and general guidance from a semi-retired academic staff member who was sympathetic to my situation. I’m quite sure that I learnt far more through all their help than I could have from my official supervisor.
- Avoid negative conversation. I write this with a touch of guilt – sometimes it does help to express one’s frustrations, or to empathise with others, but it is not motivating. Staying motivated when circumstances are impeding progress prevents unnecessary delays. Negativity is also counter-productive, as it shifts focus from what needs to be done onto what is hindering progress.
- Look for the silver-lining. Even though science is meant to be a pursuit of knowledge, and the exact answer is “irrelevant,” there’s often a burden to produce positive results, which can cause unnecessary stress when actual results don’t match-up with the expected ones. As long as something can be learnt from the undesired result, it will provide the necessary emphasis to move forward.
- Be teachable. It is a good thing to try to solve problems individually, especially within a university environment where education is the central focus. However, at some point it becomes necessary to seek advice. Personally, I’ve always been a very independent worker, which is another way of saying that I am “too proud to ask for help.”
- Plan to continue. There always comes a time when things are not fun, when going into the lab seems more like self-inflicted torture than a privilege; these unhappy times, however, always pass. This is perhaps why it is so important to be committed even before beginning a project. If the commitment is there already, it makes it much easier to endure the trying times.
- Remain calm…but hopeful. Being excited about something that looks as if it’ll work, and then doesn’t, can be disheartening. When this happens again and again, it becomes very demoralising. Remaining level-headed and waiting to see the results, rather than anticipating success, ensures that this does not happen. Of course, seeking sound advice before beginning something is even better, as there’s less chance that something will go wrong in the first place.
- Enjoy your work. This is easy to say, and generally not easy to do when things are going badly. When something becomes dissatisfying, it is usually because the focus has been taken off of what originally made it fun. For myself, I had to learn to look past the difficulties and remember why I had chosen to do research. This does go beyond just motivating oneself to do work, though, as we all have to work, but it’s a privilege to get to do something like research which is both fun and rewarding.