Getting the Mentoring You Need

This is the 11th article in a series designed to help you create an individual development plan (IDP) using myIDP, a web-based career-planning tool created to help graduate students and postdocs in the sciences define and pursue their career goals. To learn more about myIDP and begin the career exploration and planning process, please visit:

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 book, 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.,

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

Supervisors versus mentors

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:

  1. 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

Vineet has just completed his Ph.D. work in immunology and moved to a new institution for a postdoc, to get advanced training in cancer immunology. He is excited about all the “toys” in his new lab and the powerful new techniques he can apply to interesting scientific questions. His PI has a long record of success, and the lab group and environment are vibrant and interactive. However, Vineet recognizes that excellence in the lab is not sufficient to allow him to achieve his dream of starting a company based on some of the potential drug targets identified in his research. Without leaving his current position, what can he do to help prepare himself to achieve this dream? He needs to find additional mentors.

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.,

Extend 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:

  1. 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.

K. E. Kram, Mentoring at Work: Developmental Relationships in Organizational Life. (Scott, Foresman Glenview, IL, 1985).

T. A. Scandura, Mentorship and career mobility: An empirical investigation. Journal of Organizational Behavior. 13,169-174 (1992).

T. 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).

M. C. Higgins, The more, the merrier? Multiple developmental relationships and work satisfaction. Journal of Management Development. 19, 277-296 (2000).

S. 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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