Mentoring in Science

Monday, June 29, 2015

In Greek mythology, Mentor was the person whom Odysseus left in charge of his son Telemachus before leaving to fight in the Trojan War. According to Homer’s Odyssey, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, disguised herself as Mentor and visited Telemachus several times to advise him while his father was away. Today, the term “mentor” denotes someone who passes his or her knowledge and wisdom to somebody with less experience.

Sculpture of Mentor forcing Telemachus to abandon Eucharis, by Tito Angelini. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy. Photo by Jan / CC BY

Mentors in science

Mentoring in science is highly important, even necessary. It’s not an activity to reserve solely for one’s free time, but rather an essential part of working as a scientist at all levels. As researchers, passing our knowledge on to the next generation of young scientists and clinicians advances our fields forward as new minds build on old knowledge. Students represent the future of science, and they need thoughtful, kind, stimulating guidance. Successful scientists very likely had exceptional mentors in their formative years. As we move up the ladder, it is time to give back to the scientific community by helping to form and develop younger careers.

Traits of a good mentor

A mentor’s primary role is to ensure that the mentee is prepared for the future. He or she ought to be accessible, with an open door and a welcoming attitude. The best mentoring involves active listening, patience, encouragement, and constructive feedback. Honesty helps build trust and facilitate good communication. Moreover, open-mindedness enables the mentor’s understanding of each mentee’s individual needs, goals, skills, and potential. An excellent mentor should not simply try to make clones of one’s self, but must recognize the differences in interests, styles, and personalities of his or her mentees. Encouraging creativity and independence promotes the achievement of great scientific discoveries.

A learning experience

To truly know something, one must be able to teach it to others. Mentoring is not only a task for the PI—junior scientists can also be mentors at various stages of their careers. It can be a very valuable learning experience, since mentoring facilitates the development of leadership skills. Besides expanding communication skills, the mentoring process can engender a most valuable ability: how to draw the best out of a person or a team. By bringing new people under your mentoring umbrella, you can spread your enthusiasm, especially if the mentee is part of your regular team. When mentoring young students, mentors can also learn about the latest scientific developments, better understand their own weaknesses and strengths, and see things with a different, less biased perspective.

Personal benefits for the mentor

Intrinsic to the mentoring process is a deep sense of personal satisfaction. The mentor makes relationships that often last a lifetime. In fact, the sense of pride as the mentee succeeds as a scientist can also last a lifetime. As an added perk, the mentor has the opportunity to expand his or her network as mentees branch out and move up their professional ladders.

As guides for mentees

Mentors can help junior scientists with career choices and provide a boost in their confidence. Mentees are encouraged to identify specific goals for what they need to learn, including, for example, guidance with a project, career advice, or even personal advice unrelated to work. Mentees should spend time thinking about what specifically they seek from a mentoring relationship and work to communicate it effectively. Expectations have to be set early during mentorship, especially if it is a formal arrangement. Mentees must show professionalism and respect their mentors’ time, opinions, and advice. They must also learn how to accept feedback constructively.

Seeking multiple mentors

Good mentorship is critical for the development of mentees. Having one mentor is usually insufficient, especially when you work on interdisciplinary projects or want to expand your career options. As not everyone has all of the answers, it is best to seek advice from multiple mentors to gain insight into a question spanning different scientific fields and perspectives. It is important to keep in mind that an adviser is not the same as a mentor. An adviser directs someone on the appropriate path to follow, generally without taking into consideration the complete situation of the advisee, while a mentor guides the mentee to find his or her own path based on the individual's passions, motivations, and needs.

As an early-career researcher with several outstanding mentors guiding me, I strongly encourage all scientists to seek mentors and mentees to grow to the best of their abilities, no matter the stage in their careers. I recently took a course on mentoring that inspired me to request permission of my supervisor for me to mentor a summer student this year. I am looking forward to this upcoming opportunity, which will allow me to share my experience and knowledge with a younger person. The responsibility is great, and the benefits are even greater.

Category: Careers