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We need to encourage formal and informal academic mentorships

By DAVID KENT | FEB 05 2014

Last spring I wrote an article called “Postdoctoral mentors and a regular reality check” which discussed the topic of a secondary mentorship program. The postdoctoral-fellow second mentor is something I’ve been pushing to create here in Cambridge. Many people find some type of mentorship on their own through departmental seminars, collaborations, conferences, etc. – but are all types of mentorship getting covered?

First of all, I had a short think about what the core components of a mentor should be in my own field of life sciences:

  • scientific – how to do scientific research, how to write papers/grants
  • network – how to engage other scientists (e.g., at conferences), how to review papers, how to publicize  research
  • career – how to make it in academia, when to apply (or not!) for grants/fellowships, when to leave the current post, non-academic career options

Much ink has been spilled on the lack of non-academic career mentoring and we’ve also written quite a lot about this on our site (“So you want to be a…” series, “What to do with a PhD”, Engaging Early”). However, this type of mentoring must be preceded by a real assessment of whether one should or should not be thinking about these options.

The “reality check”

The mentoring that virtually nobody in our line of research gets is perhaps the toughest to deliver and the toughest to hear: the reality check. It comes in two flavours: 1) you don’t have the necessary skills to become an independent group leader, and 2) you could be an independent group leader, but you have a whole set of other skills that could potentially be better applied elsewhere. I would maintain that the vast majority of early career researchers have very little mentorship in this area and the “reality check” could save quite a lot of teeth gnashing.

Some of the best mentors I’ve had in my own career have been question askers – the people who weasel out of me what I am motivated to do despite me not having made up my mind. They are informed (i.e., they understand the system), they are non-directive (they don’t say “if I were you, I would do X”), and they are invested in your success and happiness. This is not always your supervisor – in fact, it often isn’t – but is rather a good friend who has more experience and understands your situation.

Inevitably, some people figure this out for themselves and find these mentors throughout their career and it usually is not a formal relationship. However, many people never get a broad level of mentorship that covers all the needed areas, so many universities and postdoc associations are rumbling about how to make this happen for all researchers. The Catch-22 however is that this often requires a formalizing of a currently informal relationship.

Indeed, there are examples of very formal mentorship programs, such as at the National Institutes of Health, where the structure is mandated, the outcomes are measured and the frequency of interaction fairly prescribed. At most institutions this might meet with resistance due to the large time commitment for the mentor and could feel burdensome for those being mentored that already have established informal networks of mentors. We’d love to hear from people involved in formal mentorship programs as to whether there is value in such initiatives.

There are also many efforts by scientific societies to encourage early career scientists to meet established researchers (meet-the-expert lunches, social events at smaller conferences, selected trainee/fellow programs etc) though I would argue that most of these are geared toward identifying those on track for academic careers. So how do we get people advice on the missing reality check?

Overall, the simplest solution in my mind would be to cultivate an informal and low maintenance relationship between mentors and researchers which would require an identified willingness (maybe as simple as a list of people willing to be approached) and a mental preparedness on the part of both mentor and trainee.

Last week, the creators of the AAAS myIDP published an article that serves as a very useful reminder to people searching for mentors to not expect everything to be done for them. Mentors can be most effective when you know what questions you want to have answered and have given the issue some thought. If you’re at a career decision point, I’d advise a read and, as always, a click through the myIDP questionnaire to help identify your own motivations.

David Kent
David Kent is a group leader at the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute. His laboratory's research focuses on fate choice in single blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David is currently the Stem Cell Institute’s Public Engagement Champion and has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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