More on choosing a mentor

Nov 13 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

I just received a link from GWIMS (Group on Women in Medicine and Science, part of the AAMC- Association of American Medical Colleges) for the GWIMS Toolkit. This toolkit is:

a series of presentations designed to provide practical guidance on a variety of topics relevant to women faculty in academic medicine. Each presentation provides an overview of the topic, relevant best practices, tips on implementation, and useful references for more information. We encourage you to share these resources with interested colleagues at your organization.

First, much of the information is valid for sub-disciplines other than academic medicine and life sciences. I think these pages are public, and anyone can go and download any of the toolkits, which are pdfs of presentations. One of the ones announced today is "How to Identify Mentors Committed to the Professional Success of Women in Medicine and Science". I'm not sure that I can immediately link to the pdf, but you can go to the toolkits link above and use that. They make a couple of good points that are worth emphasizing (hence this post as a follow-up to the last). In places it gets wordy & academic-ese, but its easy to skip. For example, they list three different roles: a coach, a sponsor, a counselor.  I don't think the lines among these is particularly obvious (advice on personal/professional life vs general career guidance?).

It is important to figure out what you want or need from a mentoring relationship. Ask yourself, "with what do I need help?". Sometimes, its just someone to listen to you without comment (such people are often called "friends"). Sometimes its someone to teach you how to pipette better (such people are often called "postdocs"). And sometimes its a template to write a letter for a job application. The main point is that rather than feeling a vague need that is difficult to articulate, thinking about what you want and need may make finding it a lot easier. This applies to shopping in a grocery store, also.

One minor point on one slide about finding mentors underlies a whole world of trouble.  If you are junior faculty, your department chair can and may function as a mentor. However, using the person to whom you report, i.e., your direct boss, as a mentor can present a problem because of "potential conflict of interest".  I think every PI is rife with COI. It can be especially tough when, as a young PI, you need to produce papers/grants/data and you rely on your trainees. You are training them, but they are also "working" for you. Therein, of course, lies thousands of tweets about the abuse of Postdocs and the perversion of the NIH system to provide cheap labor. I had a discussion years ago, with a good department chair, who really supported women and really wanted to mentor them. But he also had to evaluate all the junior faculty and I tried to explain that for some aspects of mentoring that by nature of his role as "boss", they just weren't always going to be comfortable in coming to him. I remembered this the other day when talking with my postdoc. He's on the cusp of leaving the lab. Of course I want him to stay, he's brilliant and hard working. But of course I want him to go get a great job and establish his own lab. For me, the best I can do is point out that I have this COI, and make him aware that I see both sides. At the end of the day, COI is almost always there when you work with other human beings, as they almost always have their own agendas. Those agendas may or may not overlap or conflict with your agendas. Caveat emptor.

Here is the list of tips for searching for a mentor:

  • Look for individuals as mentors who enjoy their roles and responsibilities
  • Look for individuals as your mentors who are experienced yet willing to listen to your concerns and needs
  • Look for individual mentors with whom you can build a relationship on trust, mutual respect and confidentiality
  • Consider any personal and/or professional biases that they may bring to your mentoring relationship

This all may be obvious, but reading it once and sticking it somewhere back in your hindbrain is worthwhile.

One response so far

  • Ola says:

    Great advice. If I may add two more tips:

    - Consider looking down for a mentor. As a junior PI I learned a lot from post-doc's and students. This is especially true when you're not from this country or culture. Being raised in a different academic environment makes it very difficult to understand how people tick. People who are below you on the ladder but have been raised within the system, are great for advice on how to behave appropriately in your new found environment. This is also true across institutions - for example if you did a PhD at a non-medical university, and are now a PI at a med school, go ask advice from MD/PhD students. If you trained at a private school but are now at a state college, the student outlook is very different, and you can learn a lot by asking them.

    - Go outside your institution for a mentor. One of my best mentors is an emeritus fart at a college 100 miles away, who is EiC at a journal I'm on the editorial board of. We usually enjoy a beer or several at the annual meeting of the society that runs the journal, and his advice has been priceless. We were from the same country originally, and that probably explains why I trust his advice, even though he's in a completely different field and at a different type of institution.

    Mentors come in all shapes and sizes, and the "my supervisor" option is a lazy default. Looking way outside for a mentor is hard work, but ultimately rewarding - another of my mentors is a neighbor who's a retired auto worker - he has a knack for seeing through BS that is unsurpassed by my academic colleagues.

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