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THE BLACK HOLE

Academic scientists need to create their own social networks

Mentors, in particular, can help you to expand your contact base to the larger world around you.

By JONATHAN THON | FEB 18 2015

To succeed outside the narrow career trajectory of “university professor,” early career scientists must be exposed to the job market earlier. So how do we help new scientist-entrepreneurs succeed? My previous blog post dealt with exposure to other career opportunities and the general world at large. This article will deal with networking and communication.

Science, and career development within it, is an open conversation. There are no instructions, no “best practices,” and no established career trajectory; only “vision” and the courage to see it realized. This perspective is sometimes lost in the rat-race that is academic career advancement. The blinders young scientists self-impose to keep focused on the goal of tenure often hide much greener pastures to the left and right, and distract from the true purpose of this vocation, which is scientific advancement.

This is an important point to make because the practical benefits afforded by an academic career are poor. There are no gatekeepers to knowledge and scientific advancement should not be sequestered within universities and research hospitals. In reality, it is not, and what is oftentimes difficult for tenure-track academics to see today is that that there are a multitude of ways to achieve major scientific advancements, and be recognized for them, outside of the academic setting.

One way to bridge this gap is to better communicate the opportunities that scientists have to make concrete differences in scientific advancement today. This was the foremost reason why I agreed to be interviewed for the Leading Life Science Podcast, which aims to fill this niche by letting established mentors speak directly to trainees about their experiences. Damien Wilpitz, who has been a guest author on the Black Hole, has done an excellent job of setting the right tone for what becomes an informal fireside chat, and challenges his speakers with direct questions that are regularly ignored when discussing career development in the sciences.

I am the second guest to appear on the podcast – the first was Dr. Peter Tontonoz, whose interview was incredibly insightful for those of you on the tenure track. Upcoming is Dr. Joseph Italiano, my postdoctoral mentor who I admire greatly for his proficiency in managing lab resonance, and whose interview I also strongly recommend you listen to.

Mentors are an exceptional resource that should be leveraged by scientists at every level to build their contact base and expand their understanding of the world around them. I consider myself one, and there are an increasing number of scientists that are eager to volunteer their time and experience to help each other make more profound scientific advances. Fernando Albertorio, whose acquaintance I recently had the pleasure of making, is a perfect example.

Fernando is a PhD STEM scientist (science, technology, engineering, and math) who left a 13-year science career – including stints at the National Institutes of Health and Harvard University – to start his own company. Along the way he became interested in the science of entrepreneurship, and is now helping lead this discussion. Fernando believes strongly that teaching entrepreneurship begins with good mentoring, and I couldn’t agree more. Mentors, especially those far outside your discipline, will help you construct the social network that will turn your head, and expose you to the larger world around you. Leverage them because your blinders are in the way.

ABOUT JONATHAN THON
Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is an assistant professor in the hematology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
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  1. Jano Klimas (@JanKlimas) / February 21, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    I agree with Dr Thon about the need for a broad exposure during early career stages. Finding a mentor can be a challenge for many junior academics because some supervisors don’t have time to mentor researchers. If you are seeking a mentor, I can’t tell you what to look for in a mentorship, but I can tell you what I look for in it. I had a chance to explore my expectations in a mentoring programme at the Addiction Health Services Research conference in Boston, MA. More and more conferences are introducing mentoring schemes.

    What do you want in a mentor? What are you really looking for?
    If the “top athletes and singers have coaches”, as Atul Gawande writes, why should you?
    What I want from mentoring is to have someone with whom I can discuss where my life is going, where my work is going, where my passion lies and how to integrate them all.
    Academic or non-academic, a mentor should be able to help distance myself from the immediate tasks and focus on the bigger picture; my life as a whole, not just work.
    Other people may need a mentor to talk about the following questions:
    What to do after my current contract expires?
    How to invest my time, energy and money according to that?
    How to supervise and mentor junior colleagues?
    ​Some help with writing would be welcome too.​

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