Wally wrote: (edited a bit for space, but go read the whole thing)
I love being a postdoc – ... we don’t always have choices as to where we live.... Further, some of us belong to minority groups and living in some places in the US (where costs are often far cheaper) is just not particularly safe.
I wondered if I could ask a question of the group – my mentor has been out of town/the country for the past 3-4 months and will continue to be so for another 2 months (at least). I adore my mentor, but I’m having a hard time getting the mentorship/training I need (we don’t really have a lab – it’s just me) – and at the same time feel guilty for needing anything. I wonder if anyone has thoughts on what are reasonable things for a first year postdoc (in a completely new research area) to ask for from their mentor (for example, regular meetings/phone calls)? What does ideal mentorship/training look like in the first year of a postdoc? Thank you in advance.
So first off, Wally, I do appreciate that there are large places in the world where we, whoever we are, do not feel safe. It's a hard call sometimes, to chose between that perfect job, and going to a place that doesn't welcome who we are, who our family is, let alone finding a group of people who will support us in what we do.
As for getting mentorship. Indeed. I am sure the loyal Scientopia Readers will have Things To Say.
My thoughts: Firstly, ask your mentor for a weekly Skype conference. This should be possible. It may only have to be 30 minutes (which will make it more palatable). Asking for weekly meetings is not asking for too much. For your part, I would work hard to make those meetings useful. Get a template of some sort, and use it. With some of my trainees, I use four questions:
- What are your over-arching goals (this can be either a monthly or yearly or projectly scale, or it can be all of these)? This, or these, may not change week to week, but it is good to revisit and remind on a regular basis.
- What have you accomplished in the past week?
- What do you plan to accomplish in the coming week?
- What is going to get in the way of you doing #3?
Within each of these, we break it down by project/sub-project or area. If the trainee is doing some teaching or taking a class, there is teaching for each question, and research for each question. If the postdoc has two different papers they're working on, we deal with these q's for each paper.
By organizing what you have to say to your mentor, and making sure you are using the time efficiently, it will not only help you get the most out of the time, but also the mentor.
Secondly, I think it is reasonable, nay beyond reasonable and approaching necessity, to develop some of those over-arching goals, and get your mentor to sign off on them. I think these goals need to be at different time scales, including one for the duration of the training time with this mentor. Then either monthly or multi-monthly goals are useful for making sure the largest goal gets done. These goals can break down by either time period or project period. But they time and scope should have both attached to the goal. So, for example, it could be, if the PD is to learn new techniques:
Over-arching/top level goal: To learn new & specific experimental techniques, to learn how to analyze data these techniques generate and produce at least 1-2 publishable papers per year.
Goal for Winter/Spring 2017 (ie until June): master technique #1 and collect preliminary data that would be sufficient for a small paper. Analyze these data. Outline results and begin writing paper (paper to be done in summer 2017).
Goal for Spring/Summer 2017: work with trainee ZZZ on learning technique #2. Help ZZZ analyze these data, and participate in writing this paper (mid-list authorship). [of course, this depends on a discussion with mentor & ZZZ to make sure this is acceptable and understood by all. Negotiate authorship in advance.]
There are lots and lots of other examples of and articles on how to develop this kind of thing, often called an "Individual Development Plan or Program (IDP). This one is from SCIENCE, which has an interactive tool to help you develop a plan of your own. This one is from FASEB. Here's some NIH info on IDP and postdoc success. Here is an article from NATURE. Very important: these goals needs to be fluid, changeable, and modifiable as you go on. That's why including overarching goals, at least briefly, each week, is a good thing. It gives you a chance to let them grow and change without feeling you are smashing your godfigures.
Finally, get rid of the guilt. Hard to do, but a good thing. In this case, it's a waste of energy. Decide what you need. Work on trying to get it. Know that you won't always get the support and mentoring you need. Know that you won't always know what support and mentoring you need. But letting guilt feelings enter into the equation is not going to move anything in a direction you would want to move.