Getting the Mentoring You Need

By Philip S. Clifford, Cynthia N. Fuhrmann, Bill Lindstaedt, Jennifer A. Hobin

Mentoring is a word widely used to describe the relationship between a novice (the protégé) and a more experienced individual (the mentor). In the context of Ph.D. training, the protégé is a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow who is learning from an accomplished scientist. Having a trusted mentor is important at any career stage—but particularly during career transitions. In her classic book1, Boston University’s Kathy Kram describes the two benefits of mentoring: psychosocial functions (acceptance, confirmation, emotional support, etc.) and career enhancement functions. The second of these benefits is the focus of this article. Through mentoring, the protégé prepares for more rapid and successful career progression. The literature is replete with studies documenting the value of mentoring in productivity, job success, and career satisfaction.2,3

Having a trusted mentor is important at any career stage—but particularly during career transitions.

Getting good mentoring is not a matter of luck; it is a matter of intention and a genuine desire to succeed. The former mayor of New York City, Edward Irving “Ed” Koch, was known for his signature line “How’m I doin’?,” which he asked virtually everyone he came in contact with around the city. However, the question that you should be asking trusted mentors is “How can I do better?”

Supervisors versus mentors

In some circles a supervisor is referred to as a principal investigator (PI). If you are a graduate student, this person is formally assigned as your thesis adviser. If you are a postdoctoral fellow, he or she may be known as your mentor, though this is an unfortunate choice of words. This person directs the laboratory in which you work and is responsible for your research performance. You should expect her to provide frank and timely feedback on your research, help you to think critically about your science, and guide you with presentations and publications. In some cases your PI will be fully invested in your career progression; in other cases they will have limited ability or interest. You should work with her to take best advantage of her expertise, but also be proactive in looking elsewhere for the mentoring you need to advance your career.

Soliciting guidance

As you use myIDP to create your individual development plan, you need to be prepared to share selected portions of it with your supervisor. If you are concerned about the prospect of discussing career issues with your supervisor, one way to gently introduce this topic is to ask her to provide feedback on your skills by completing the skills assessment in myIDP and then discuss it together. In the myIDP summary tab under “skills assessment,” you can download a PDF version of the assessment tool. Here are some tips to facilitate the discussion with your supervisor:

  • Make an appointment separate from other lab meetings. This should not be a 10 minute add-on to a discussion about your data. This discussion needs to focus on your career.
  • Meet with your supervisor in an environment away from the lab; this will eliminate distractions.
  • Start on a positive note: “I’ve really enjoyed my last year in the lab. I feel I’ve made great progress on my research project, and I’m beginning to think ahead to the next step in my career.” This assumes, of course, that those statements are true. The point is that you shouldn’t be apologetic for taking this step.
  • Do not attempt to share your whole IDP. Prepare a concise outline of what you want to discuss. myIDP facilitates this by allowing you to print selected portions.
  • Be prepared to negotiate. If your Plan A is to teach science in a liberal arts college, you will need to get comprehensive teaching experience (developing a syllabus, delivering a lecture, engaging students in active learning, writing exams, giving grades). This will take time away from the laboratory, so you need to reach an agreement with your adviser on how the research will get done.

Sometimes things go wrong. If you have a problem with your graduate adviser, see a representative of the graduate program, the department chair, or someone in the graduate school administration. If you have a problem with your postdoc supervisor, consider talking to someone in the postdoctoral office or the university ombudsman.

Building a mentoring team

It is not reasonable to expect a single person to be an expert in everything you need to learn. You should expect to develop a “mentoring team” consisting of experts in different dimensions of science. As you identify skill areas that need work, you should seek out different mentors for different skills. This recommendation sounds like common sense, but it is also based on data that reveal a positive correlation between mentoring relationships and career outcomes.4,5Extend your mentoring network beyond the bounds of your current department or institution. Identify scientists in other departments who seem approachable and have appropriate expertise. For some issues, people who are one stage beyond where you are may provide valuable input. At professional meetings, make it a point to get to know people from other universities who have significant knowledge of your specialty area. Pay special attention to nonacademic scientists who work in careers with which you are unfamiliar. A broad cohort of mentors can provide you with diverse perspectives and point you to resources—including other people—you wouldn’t know about otherwise.

Developing other mentoring relationships

Here are some suggestions on how to develop mentoring relationships:

  • Clarify your needs before you approach anyone.
  • Identify someone with a skill set that you would like to learn. Do you need help with broad issues such as time management or work-life balance? Do you want help with more circumscribed topics such as presentation skills or grant writing?
  • Make contact. Most senior scientists are willing to share their expertise with younger colleagues. Don’t be afraid to approach them, but recognize that people are busy. Don’t be offended if someone says “no.”
  • Start by telling your potential mentor that you need help with a specific issue. It’s too soon to use the word “mentor”; this relationship may take time to evolve. The initial meeting is just the first step.
  • If your potential mentor agrees to help, ask if you can meet on a regular basis. Those meetings should have a clear purpose, on which you should agree.
  • Be prepared to set the agenda for each meeting. You should take responsibility for raising the issues about which you want feedback.
  • Show up for meetings on time and end them on time. This shows respect for the mentor and her time.

Good mentoring is an essential building block in constructing a modern scientific career. Be proactive about your professional future. Invest in yourself and your career by carefully assembling a team of outstanding mentors.

1K. E. Kram, Mentoring at Work: Developmental Relationships in Organizational Life. (Scott, Foresman Glenview, IL, 1985).2T. A. Scandura, Mentorship and career mobility: An empirical investigation. Journal of Organizational Behavior. 13,169-174 (1992).3T. D. Allen, L. T. Eby, M. L. Poteet, E. Lentz, L. Lima. Career benefits associated with mentoring for proteges: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology 89 127-136 (2004).4M. C. Higgins, The more, the merrier? Multiple developmental relationships and work satisfaction. Journal of Management Development. 19, 277-296 (2000).5S. G. Baugh, T. A. Scandura, The effect of multiple mentors on protege attitudes toward the work setting. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality 14 503-522 (1999).

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