The Training Page

Mentoring for the Postdoctoral Fellow

So what is mentoring? This is a very important and difficult question and one that is often answered with, “We know it when we see it.” This isn’t very satisfying to those looking for good mentoring. If we can’t describe it, measure it, or delineate it, then how can we find it?

The notion of mentoring is an ancient one, and the word “mentor” comes from Homer, who described the original Mentor as the “wise and trusted counselor” whom Odysseus left in charge of his household. A few things come to mind as I think about this quote. First, the mentor should be wise and trusted, and second, they should be a counselor. Lastly, the relationship is between two people. This last point causes me the most concern in the current postdoctoral training environment.

As Ph.D.s we look to the science for our direction. The science is what we are passionate about and it drives us to succeed. To be an “independent” investigator, you must spend vast amounts of time pursuing your goals. Passion helps you to sustain your drive.

However, finding a scientist who is passionate about the same things that fascinate you is not the best way to choose a mentor. Often the people doing the most interesting science are not the best mentors. The mentor-trainee relationship is a one-to-one relationship, and the mentor should see more potential in you than you can see in yourself. Moreover, the mentor should be someone who is willing to spend the necessary time with you to help you to achieve your career goals.

When I was training Ph.D. students at the University of Cincinnati, students were able to do rotations through laboratories to get a sense of which faculty they could work well with and which science or projects were the most interesting to them. It also gave the investigators time to interact with the students to see whether they could mentor them productively.

In the current postdoctoral training atmosphere, investigators are hiring staff to assist them in moving their projects forward. Often interviews are done over the phone. Although the science may be interesting to both the mentor and the trainee, there is no provision for the two parties to interact to test the relationship. What happens if I bring someone into my group that I don’t feel I can adequately mentor? Now I have made a commitment to them. How do I make this relationship effectively work?

To address these issues, I recommend that the potential mentor and trainee have in-depth conversations with each other in advance. Together, the two individuals should talk about their expectations and come to an agreement. Discussion topics might include the amount of independence the trainee requires, the number of publications expected, how much time the mentor expects the trainee to spend working, how many meetings the trainee will attend each year, and whether the projects can be continued once the trainee moves on.

Just as important, it is crucial to remember that the mentor-trainee relationship is dynamic. These conversations should continue at least annually throughout the course of the relationship because some expectations and goals will change for both individuals. Good communication will help to minimize problems. Part of good communication is the ability to listen, and listening is an important skill that both parties need to practice. Pay attention to the needs and goals of each other and you will find success as you work toward your common goals.