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.
Dr. C. Gita Bosch has twenty years of academic leadership experience (PhD, MD/PhD, Post-baccalaureate and undergraduate research education) and seven years of laboratory biomedical research. As Associate Dean at both Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (where she led the effort to create and establish the Graduate School) she has served as the Minority Student Advocate for over twenty years. She also served on an Advisory Group of the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) to look at health disparities in biomedical research and the biomedical workforce in the US. And for almost twenty years, she has been working with various organizations that work with underrepresented undergraduate and graduate students such as the ABRCMS (formerly NMRS), SACNAS and MHPF. She also currently serves on External Advisory Committees for Post-Baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP), Minority Access to Research Careers Programs (MARC) and Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE). As an elected member of the Steering Committee of the GREAT Group, AAMC, she founded and chaired the Gateway for Aspiring Biomedical Scientists Committee which created and launched a resource website for trainees at all levels. She also has a long history leading professional development workshops for undergraduate and graduate students. She has also served as a consultant with the Office of Inclusion, Diversity and Equal Opportunity at Case Western Reserve University to help guide the preparation of a Diversity Strategic Action Plan for the University, and to the Association of UNCF/Merck Fellows (The AUMF) to help launch a professional association of African American biomedical scientists established as a national presence.
If you’ve been inspired to try mentoring yourself, here is a guide to help you along the way!
Mentoring is an elusive concept that can be difficult to define because it is a unique experience for each mentor and mentee pair. A general definition is that mentoring is a dynamic process in which a mentor and mentee each learns to respect and trust the other’s commitment, expertise, and individuality, and are willing to invest time and energy to build a unique, positive and productive relationship.
Why become a mentor?
Mentoring requires an unwavering commitment of both time and effort. So why should a mentor take on the task of mentoring? First and foremost, in addition to contributing to the success of the upcoming generation, there is much personal satisfaction to be gained from the knowledge that you contributed to another person’s success. By mentoring underrepresented trainees, a mentor is contributing to the diversity of their discipline by developing future leaders within that discipline. A mentor also experiences personal growth as they develop their own coaching, feedback and leadership skills.
What about underrepresented students?
Sometimes the barriers to success for underrepresented students are not obvious and it can be difficult to know how to help the student. It is important to recognize those barriers which can include academic and cultural isolation, lack of motivation and self-esteem, unsupportive peers, friends and family, real or perceived discrimination, stereotype threat where students fulfill the self‐defeating prophecy and low expectations that can lead to low performance, and the inability of some students to acknowledge and accept that there may be a problem because they feel ashamed about “where they come from”. Excellent communications skills, particularly listening skills by the mentor is essential for them to understand the attitudes and values of the mentee and to see and accept the mentee’s belief system.
How can mentoring help students?
Mentoring can be a great help to students by helping them develop personal and professional competencies (such as communications and networking skills), removing institutional barriers, providing access to informal networks and information, avoiding and/or decreasing alienation, improving retention and increasing diversity in the academic disciplines. Mentoring should also foster academic and social integration, nurture creativity, establish a monitoring and advisement standard, and build lifelong coping skills.
Meetings – Share personal information
Starting a mentoring relationship with a student can be difficult and/or awkward. The first few meetings should be used to build the foundation for the mentor/ mentee relationship. It is important that the mentor takes the initiative to schedule the first meeting to immediately send the message to the student that they are important and the faculty wants to serve as the mentor. It will be helpful to the initial meeting if the faculty sends a brief professional bio blurb to the student and asks for the same in return. This will provide a springboard for the initial conversation and should lead to the sharing of some personal information about career path/choice and overcoming roadblocks. By sharing this information with the student, the faculty is setting the tone and giving permission to the student to share their information.
It is essential to begin to establish trust immediately and so an explicit discussion about confidentiality should be woven in this first conversation. A brief discussion about the expectations and goals for the mentor‐mentee relationship should also begin in this initial meeting. Before the meeting is over, the next meeting should be scheduled for sometime within the next couple of weeks. Again, it is important that the message to the mentee is that they are important and that the mentor is taking this relationship seriously.
Individual Development Plan – Set goals
The second meeting should clear up any questions/concerns left from the first meeting followed by an informal discussion along the lines of an Individual Development Plan. This will give the mentee an opportunity to begin to articulate their long‐, intermediate and short‐term career goals and their training and educational needs to reach these goals. An informal skills (professional and technical) assessment should be done at some point (more than likely at a subsequent meeting) to discover the gaps in the mentee’s portfolio and identify strategies, including a timeline, to close the gaps. The final two items for discussion at the second meeting should be one about a time‐frame for evaluating the mentoring relationship to ensure that it is a positive and productive relationship, and one about future interactions.
It is important to have regular and frequent contact between the mentor and mentee. These do not all have to be formal or in‐person meetings. Emails can greatly facilitate the relationship. But face‐to‐face contact is essential and they can be as brief and informal as a quick “hello, how are you” interaction at a seminar or passing in the hallway. But there should be regularly scheduled formal in‐person meetings.
Stick to your commitments
Face‐to‐face meetings help to build trust, one of the most important ingredients for a successful mentor‐mentee relationship. Following through on scheduled meetings and other commitments are also essential for building trust. Another essential ingredient for trust‐building is caring and honest feedback. Positive feedback should not be confused with unwarranted praise and flattery. Providing negative feedback is just as important but constructive criticism should always be accompanied by constructive advice. Such feedback will provide a framework for learning for the mentee.
Be mindful of barriers
There are many pitfalls that can derail a mentor‐mentee relationship and awareness of and attention to them can help avoid them. Among the many obstacles are time constraints, lack of expertise, over‐dependence of the mentee, the mentor subconsciously imposing their values and perceptions on the mentee because of a lack of understanding/appreciation of cultural differences, attitudes and behaviors, and the inability to establish trust in the relationship. Other barriers that can lead to ineffective mentoring include just providing the solutions rather than working together to identify solutions and thus teaching the mentee about problem solving, regularly neglecting commitments to the mentee, assuming too much responsibility for the mentee’s success in comparison to the mentee’s responsibility and accountability, and having unrealistic expectations of the mentee.
What makes a good mentor?
A mentor should be a mentee’s strongest advocate and at the same time their strongest critic.
An effective mentor will nurture and foster positive self‐perception and self‐worth in the mentee, help them accept and cope with their “baggage” by creating an atmosphere that gives the mentee “permission” to share feelings and aspirations, to express concerns and to identify problems associated with issues that are seen and unseen. The effective mentor will listen well, be able to observe keenly and is skilled in communication to understand the mentee’s perspective by knowing when and how to ask appropriate probing questions. This mentor will help the mentee find linkages and teach them how to navigate their environment by sharing their own strategies and coping mechanisms.
A strong mentor is committed to the success of their mentee and will challenge, motivate, inspire and encourage self‐reflection. The communication between them is open and confidential and the relationship is built on trust.