The Importance of Mentoring in Science & Tips for New Mentors
According to the Oxford Dictionary, mentoring is: “the practise of helping or advising a less experienced person over a period of time.” However, I feel like this definition doesn’t encapsulate all the importance and meaning that mentoring in science actually has.
None of us were born scientists – we all learnt how to become one by practice. Throughout our education and research experience we learnt how to develop critical thinking, to test hypotheses, to design experiments and write papers or grant applications, all of this while we try to keep a good work / life balance and survive in the scientific world. It sounds like a miracle itself.
Even though on paper it might look overwhelming, being a scientist can be a hugely gratifying and enjoyable experience with the appropriate mentoring and teamwork in the lab. That’s where the importance of mentoring resides.
Personally, I feel extremely lucky to have had the mentors I had during my career. Starting from my BSc through my MSc and up to my PhD program, I’ve had the opportunity to learn and evolve – both from a personal and scientific aspect – thanks to incredible mentors.
It might seem obvious that junior researchers need mentors, but this mentor-mentee relationship is in fact maintained at all levels of a scientific career, with postdoctoral researchers and principal investigators also needing and benefiting from adequate mentors.
One of the stages at which mentoring is most important is during the PhD program. According to the biannual PhD survey from Nature, just over 50% of respondents were overall “satisfied” with their PhD. Unsurprisingly, good mentoring and guidance from supervisors was one of the most important reasons for this. As early career researchers, we are used to being mentees and we acknowledge the importance of having a good supervisor and mentor.
However, as PhDs and early postdoc researchers, we are often asked to become mentors for younger students too. Alongside tight deadlines and pressure at work to get results and publish your research, this duty might feel daunting for many – and sometimes even feel like a waste of time. If this is how you feel when facing your teaching or mentoring duties, here are some tips that will hopefully help you enjoy and learn from the whole experience.
Embrace the experience
If you’re new to mentoring, one of the most common mistakes is to think that teaching or mentoring is not as important as other tasks, or that it’s just taking time away from your research – your real focus. But even if you aren’t thinking of pursuing a career in academia later in life, mentoring is an important skill at all levels in all fields, and we can learn a lot from it. Taking a positive attitude and an open mind when you start out can help you not to feel overwhelmed or bored, and will make it more enjoyable and valuable for both you and your mentee!
Get to know your mentee’s expectations of you
We are all different – and our mentees are no exception. That’s why mentoring is not a one-size-fits-all thing. We need to tailor our teaching routine to every mentee to get the most of it. I find it helpful to sit down the first time you meet any new student, and talk about their expectations:
- What do they want to do in their career?
- How do they feel about their career right now?
- What do they expect to get from a good supervisor?
- How do they think you can be of help?
Asking these sorts of questions and having an open conversation will help you understand them and get a bigger picture of how you can be of help. Part of this conversation should also be clarifying some concepts and ground rules if you feel those expectations are unrealistic, so that everyone can feel happy in the mentoring process.
In many wet labs, a lot of the mentoring carried out by early career researchers will turn into practical sessions. In these sessions, we show and teach different techniques and help students perform experiments to get certain results for their projects. But mentoring should be more than that.
Mentoring also includes listening, advising, and guidance around career choices. This is probably even more valuable, and can’t be learnt elsewhere. Most of us will feel like we can’t really guide anyone in these choices (at the end of the day, most of us at this stage of our career probably feel like we can’t even guide ourselves!) but that’s not really true.
From a mentee point of view, talking to a researcher who has successfully passed further steps in their career can help clarify what’s needed to pursue a career in science: what are the different options? How can we reach them? Etc. Don’t be scared to ask your mentees about their plans, ambitions and ideas for the future, as well as talking about your own experience.
Mentoring is a two-way learning experience
It is very obvious how a mentee can benefit from the mentor, but mentoring is a two-way learning process. The mentor can also take so much from the student.
From a practical point of view, in order to teach someone the principles of what you do – or in the case of STEM and wet lab, how to perform experiments and analyse data – you need to be proficient in it. As Albert Einstein said: “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother”. It is incredible all the little details that I have learnt along the way, just by showing someone else an experimental technique and getting asked questions I’d never thought about myself!
From a personal perspective, the mentor-mentee bond can be very strong if the relationship is managed well. You can grow as a researcher, as a mentor, and as a person by learning from your mentee’s experience.
This is probably one of the most helpful things we can do if we want to improve as mentors. No one is perfect, and mentoring is so personal that what can work for one person might not work for another. That’s why it’s important to get feedback – not only at the end, but also along the way – from your mentee. Getting to know what works and what doesn’t from each experience will help you build your own style of mentoring, which can then be adapted to each specific mentee.
Maria Valesco recently obtained her PhD from Trinity College Dublin, studying the role of mechanoreceptors in the Central Nervous System. She is currently continuing her work at TCD as a postdoctoral researcher in Prof. Kumlesh Dev’s lab in the Dept of Physiology.
Follow Maria on Twitter at @mariaav5
Connect with Maria on ResearchGate here: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Maria_Velasco...
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