Mastering Your PhD: Mentors, Leadership, and Community

One of the best things you can do at the start of your scientific career is find a mentor. A wise and caring mentor can mean the difference between wandering around aimlessly and striding purposefully down the path of academic life and beyond.

But don’t you already have a mentor, you may wonder? Won’t your research adviser play that role? Perhaps, but mentors and advisers aren’t usually the same thing. For one thing, an adviser directs, a mentor guides.

If your research adviser is a natural mentor and is willing to take on that role in your life–and if that relationship works for you–count yourself lucky. Not every graduate student is fortunate to have such readily available guidance and counsel from a more senior person. So, chances are you’ll need to look beyond your lab to find a good mentor. What should you look for, whom should you ask, and how can you help your adviser–and yourself–be a good mentor?

Mining for gold: Defining mentorship

Before you start looking around, you first need to take stock of what a good mentor is and what you hope to get out of the relationship. A good mentor has many characteristics but must first and foremost care about your professional development and have an interest in guiding younger scientists as they move through their careers.

This sounds time-consuming, and it can be. Why would anyone want to take time out of a busy schedule to mentor you? It’s not all about “taking” on your part. Many good mentors cherish the role of guiding younger colleagues. They gain something by giving back to the community of professionals from which they themselves were nurtured. Now that they’ve moved up in their careers, these scientists believe it’s time to help others make the trek to the summit.

Mentorship is a lot about experience and wisdom. So it goes without saying that a good mentor will be someone who is further along on the career path than you are. Before approaching another person and asking them to act as your mentor, however, you need to think carefully about the kind of person and professional you wish to emulate. On a more specific level, is there someone whose career choices you admire? Who has a great work/life balance or is particularly good at getting work published in top-tier journals?

Importantly, a good mentor should have no ulterior motive in helping you (beyond the intrinsic satisfaction that mentorship provides). He should be able to help you meet your own goals (not follow his own agenda) by providing you with support and guidance, modeling successful behavior, introducing you to a strong network, and helping you identify your strengths and weaknesses as a scientist and a person.

Choosing a mentor

When choosing a mentor, you’ll need to be honest about your own needs and what you think a mentor can do for you. Do you want your mentor to offer you regular advice on how to negotiate graduate school and your career beyond? How specific or general do you want this advice to be, and how much of a time commitment will you require? Do you want your mentor to offer you detailed career and networking advice? Or are you just looking for someone who is a good listener and can act as a sounding board when you find yourself on shaky ground?

If your research adviser is also your mentor, you may want to establish clear goals for your relationship as both a Ph.D. student and a mentee. For example, you may want to meet on a regular basis just to discuss issues outside your research. A good, comfortable relationship with your adviser, as well as a certain amount of personal chemistry, will be key for the mentor/mentee relationship to flourish.

But what if your research adviser isn’t able or isn’t willing to act as your mentor? If you find yourself in this situation, you need to take the initiative and find someone else. The first place to start is your own lab. How about a postdoc or even a fellow Ph.D. candidate who has more experience than you in the lab? If no one in your lab is a suitable candidate, someone else in your department may be. Some institutes even have a mentor program in place for those who are unable to find a mentor for themselves. Even if such a program is in place, however, you’ll still have to do some work. Mentor/mentee relationships are largely personal, so it’s important to have a mentor for whom you have great respect and warm personal regard.

When you’ve identified one or two individuals who could act as your mentor, it’s up to you to approach them. Some people may feel flattered that you’ve asked for their guidance. Others will turn you down out of fear that mentoring will take too much time, or that you will become overly dependent on them for all your decisions. Don’t be hurt if your preferred mentor turns you down. It’s most likely not personal, so be gracious and move on to someone else suitable.

Once someone agrees to be your mentor, hold up your end of the relationship by respecting your mentor’s time and professional responsibilities. You and your mentor should decide how to move forward and how much interaction you will have. Perhaps you’ll meet over lunch once a month or touch base regularly via e-mail, or your mentor will be available whenever you have a specific issue. Whatever you decide, remember that your mentor’s role is to provide you with professional guidance and to help you develop independence, not to hold your hand every step of the way.

Working with what you’ve got

What do you do if you try all these things but fail to find a suitable mentor? You may want to take a second look at your supervisor.Even if he or she seems less than willing, think of ways you can help your supervisor become a (better) mentor. Start by making an appointment to talk about your needs. Recognize that time is in short supply and make it clear that you don’t intend to add to their overly long to-do list. But be up front about your needs. Is it regular discussions you’re after, an open-door policy, or just open lines of communication so you feel you can go to your supervisor when you need a bit of guidance and support?

Encourage your supervisor to involve you in group meetings and discussions, and state that you are willing to do whatever extra things need to be done to learn and grow in your field. Volunteer to give a presentation to the department, or offer to spend time with a visiting scientist as a way to expand your network. When it comes time to write your first paper, offer to write the first draft and meet with your supervisor for comments and suggestions.

Develop a community of peers–and become a mentor yourself

Professional success doesn’t begin and end with having a mentor. Your time in graduate school is an excellent chance to strengthen your professional and social networks and create a community of your peers. Some of these professional relationships will develop into lifelong friendships and be a source of support throughout your professional life.

Be a leader among your peers. Participate in group meetings and encourage quieter members to speak up. If you don’t already have one, start a journal club in your group and invite others in your department to join. Set up social activities or team-building activities to help strengthen relationships outside the lab.

As you move up the lab food chain, become a mentor yourself by offering to supervise an undergraduate’s research project. Offer to teach when possible or provide tutoring sessions for undergraduates interested in pursuing an advanced degree.

As you progress through your career, you’ll find that the mentoring you received as a graduate student and postdoc and the networks you developed as a young scientist will provide both a firm foundation and a strong scaffolding for your career to grow. When the time comes for you to mentor others just starting out, use your insights and hard-earned wisdom to give junior colleagues a boost. It’s also another way of giving back and saying thank you for the help you received early in your career.

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