The 12-Step Guide to Getting the Most From Your Mentors
Throughout my career I’ve worked with many students from a variety of backgrounds, and after many years of mentoring I can firmly say that the mentor-mentee relationship is one of the most important relationships in science. The ability to form these strong bonds and to use them productively is what really drives science more than anything else and having good communication and a powerful human link is vital.
The term ‘mentor’ originates in Greek mythology with the story of Odysseus and his son Telemachus. Odysseus spent ten years fighting in the Trojan War, but before he went away, he entrusted his friend Mentor to look after his wife and son, and Mentor’s wise influence on Telemachus is celebrated in Homer’s classic ‘Odyssey'. It was here that the term ‘mentor’ was coined and the importance of learning and passing down wisdom was first recognised.
When we first start out in science, it can be difficult to position ourselves and to truly understand our place in the world of scientific research. We’re following in the footsteps of some great names, all of whom have passed down their knowledge from generation to generation. A great way to visualise this is by plotting your ‘mentoring tree’ through an online programme such as www.academictree.org or similar. I’ve found this to be a great way to record your position in the wider field of science research and to look back at your previous mentors, understand who mentored them, and to appreciate this transfer of knowledge over time. When I look at my own mentoring tree, I am positioned below one of my most significant mentors, Bob Lefkowitz, and can see that on previous branches of the tree were some amazing names such as August Kekule, Robert Bunsen, Erwin Schrödinger, Max Planck, and Justus Liebig. To realise that through mentoring I am connected to all these great chemists and great thinkers is quite remarkable. To understand that this mentoring process glues people together and connects people over hundreds of years to be part of one organisation, part of one structure, is so important.
For me, mentoring is key to the scientific process. I have gone on to mentor young scientists from all walks of life, all with a drive to do science and each one of them a unique individual with a unique set of talents and skills. The mentoring role is incredibly enriching for a supervisor, but it’s also a real challenge, and that’s why it's really vital to understand ways in which you can help make the process not only easier, but as productive as possible for both of you.
These are my 12 steps for success when it comes to getting the most from your mentors:
1. Choose your mentor carefully
Choosing the right mentor for you is key and recognising and understanding each other’s personalities is very important. It’s a relationship that, if successful, will be part of your life forever. The mentors I have worked with 20 years ago are now close personal friends with whom I still have a professional working relationship, so making the right match at the beginning is incredibly important. You should be looking for compatibility in both mentality and in personality, because if you have very different personalities it's going to make it more difficult to connect. Try to engage and understand what it is that makes your potential mentor tick, and in turn what makes you tick, so that your shared journey through science will be as smooth as possible. Knowing yourself and what sort of scientist you want to be is key to this compatibility and when you achieve this, you'll be able to find a mentor who is really going to be good for you and your career. You’ll want to find someone who inspires you, who makes you laugh, because although it’s important to have similar research interests these are likely to change over time, so consider not only their work interests but their personal interests too.
2. Have more than one mentor
Be prepared to have multiple mentors throughout your career. Yes, there will likely be one or two who have the most significant influence on you, but other potential mentors are all around you. I had numerous mentors that I would go to for advice on different aspects of science. I had different mentors that I would talk to about how to publish, how to write, how to master a new lab skill, how to present well, even a mentor who would give me personal and emotional advice. While I still had one ‘primary’ mentor I was always seeking advice from as many different sources as possible. Never limit yourself just to one voice when it comes to advice, look for wisdom in as many different places as you can find it.
When it comes to approaching someone for mentoring advice, be brave! As a mentor it’s always impressive when somebody has the get up and go and the proactive nature to come and talk to you. It doesn’t have to be a formal introduction, in fact the more informal the better. Also, remember that you can pick up advice from people in many different ways, not just in the lab. Even just chatting to someone for a few minutes on the subway, for example, might provide you with a wonderful piece of advice or a bit of genius insight that will stay with you forever!
3. Have short and long-term mentoring goals
When forging a relationship with your mentor, it’s important to consider not only what’s happening in the here and now, but also where you see yourself at the end of the journey. As a scientist it’s good to have career goals, but just as important is a plan for your interaction and relationship with your potential mentor or mentors. At the beginning of your relationship, establish what you want to achieve in the short-term with regard to experiments and your current research work. If you’re committed to your research then things can move quickly, and your relationship with your mentor will be instrumental to that progression. Your ability to be creative and to drive yourself is really dependent on your ability to maintain a desire and drive for success, and a large part of that can come from having good mentors not only at an intellectual level but also on a personal level. If you're not feeling happy or fulfilled, your brain is not going to function at its best, but a good relationship with your mentor will help to overcome this. As your career progresses, you’ll hope to maintain these relationships for the rest of your life because they are like no other. It's more than just a friendship, it's an intellectual journey that you'll take together. It's one of the reasons I got into science, to join this illustrious group, to take my place on this academic tree.
4. Give and receive feedback regularly
So, it may seem obvious, but the single most important thing in the mentor-mentee relationship is communication. When I was a student, I basically lived in the doorway of my PhD mentor Dan Donnelly. I would spend half of my day talking to him about my results and what I was working on, what I wanted to do next… I'm sure I probably annoyed the hell out of him, but I was desperate to get his feedback! I really wanted to know, and that desire for information goes both ways. As a mentee you will educate your mentor, even the best ones, and as a mentor you'll be educated by your mentees. You're actually improving each other all the time, so always try to maintain a healthy stream of feedback in both directions. So often I’ve seen problems arising between mentors and mentees when there are periods of non-communication, so try to maintain a daily link where possible, even if it's just popping your head around the corner for a couple of minutes to say hello. Spending just a few minutes each day discussing something, anything! Any little bit of science conversation is a great way to keep that line of communication active.
When I was a postdoctoral fellow, I went to work in one of the biggest laboratories in the world and I was amazed how often there was nobody inside the lab! Everyone would be outside the lab, in hallways, in doorways, and they were talking, and I quickly realised that this constant slow feedback from one person to another, this constant feeding and checking is like a sensing mechanism to make sure everything keeps going. Communication is like the oil that lubricates the research engine.
5. Never stop asking questions
Of course, talking is excellent but it’s equally important to keep asking questions. Working in science can feel like a constant state of confusion because you are doing things no one else has done before, so it’s normal to be perplexed at times and even the most experienced of researchers are rarely 100% confident in what they are doing! The way to get around this is to keep asking questions of both yourself and your mentor. It will challenge both of you tremendously, but a good mentor will always be appreciative of a student who keeps going and keeps questioning themselves and their work. Never be afraid or embarrassed because there are no stupid questions.
6. Own up to your mistakes
One of the biggest issues that will test a mentor-mentee relationship is what happens when one of you makes a mistake. It’s never easy, but I can’t stress enough how honesty truly is the best policy! When I've had people in my lab make horrendous mistakes, it’s true that I might put my head in my hands for a second or two, but then I’ll immediately look for a way to fix it, a way to get on with it and to move forward as quickly as possible. And I’m always happy when a student owns up to a mistake, because when they don’t it becomes a much bigger issue which can grow and build into resentment, and that sort of negative pressure can do serious damage to a good working relationship.
If you're worried about doing something wrong, don't be. Your mentor will cherish the fact that you trust them enough to be honest with them. As a mentor it’s important to instil that trust in your mentees and to reassure them that you’ll have their back in times of disaster. A mentee should never feel too scared of their mentor to tell them when they've done something wrong. As a scientist, all you can do is make a mistake once and learn from it. I've made every mistake going and I tell my students that because it's part of the process. Things go wrong! It's normal and absolutely expected in science research, and one of the hardest things about our line of work is the incredibly low success rate we face, but that's why we have mentors, to keep us going when times get tough.
7. Support each other equally
Another thing to consider as a mentee is that your mentor needs you as much as you need them. If your mentor has no students working with them, they can't get anything done and as a student, if you don't have a senior supervisor or someone informing you on how to push things forward, you’re not going to make any progress either. So, you really are in each other's pocket and that's the beauty of this whole process. This is the essence of what science is. The mentoring relationship is pivotal to the progress of science and that’s why you really have to work at it. It doesn't always come naturally, and you may start off being very compatible, but things can change. However, if you both have a common goal and a common desire to make it work, you will find success. Working as a team is vital, so even if you feel very junior and you're new in the lab, remember that your mentor needs you as much as you need them.
8. Celebrate your successes together
When things do go well, you really have to enjoy it! You have to make sure that you cherish any modicum of success that you experience because science research has a 2-3% success rate, so be sure to celebrate those positives together. It’s important to enjoy the science that you do and to cherish the relationship with your mentors, because when things go well it can be a truly joyous experience.
9. Share your hopes for the future
What all mentors dearly want is to see their mentees move forward into the future and to end up doing what they do, following in their footsteps. Don't be afraid to presume or have a consciousness of your future successes. Share your hopes and ambitions with your mentor because they will be very happy to hear you thinking about your future in a positive way and will want to do all they can to help you reach your goals.
10. Keep in touch
So, what happens in a few years when you've been successful, you've completed your PhD or postdoc, and it's time to move on? It's so important to stay in contact with your mentors because they will be keen to continue supporting you throughout your career. We're all part of this ongoing process of science research, and maintaining contact is really important for that continuous transfer of knowledge from generation to generation.
11. Think about future collaborations
When you do leave, your mentor will be overjoyed to hear that you're interested in working and collaborating with them in the future, so start thinking about these possibilities before you depart. Never assume that leaving a particular role will mean the end of that mentoring relationship. You're probably never going to end this relationship, it's going to be part of your life forever. Make wise choices, continue to work at the relationship and propose potential collaborations because mentors want to be part of your ongoing career and most of all, they want to see you succeed.
12. Pass on your knowledge to others
Science is a group activity and that's how we should always think about it, so consider how you could help others in the future. I've spent a great deal of time trying to give to others what my mentors gave to me, to help and assist them wherever I can. If you can help somebody, be it a mentee or even one of your peers, with a technical issue, an emotional issue, a cognitive issue, or an academic issue, if you can help in any way, you’ve taken your first steps to becoming a mentor. If you're a positive, helpful person, you are a mentor, and you don't need to be someone’s senior to do that.
Ultimately, it’s the goal and the dream of any mentor to see their mentee go on to become a mentor for somebody else. That’s when you know you’ve done a successful job in not only helping that scientist to grow and develop, but also to take their place on the mentoring tree stretching all the way back from Pythagoras down to us here today. We're all part of a wonderful team that has changed the world forever, and it all comes down to these important connections and special relationships.
Watch Stuart's talk at the Hello Bio LabLife Conference
This article is based on Stuart's talk on 'Getting The Most From Your Mentors' at the Hello Bio virtual LabLife Conference in June 2022. You can watch the full video plus an audience Q&A session with Stuart on the Hello Bio YouTube channel:
About the author
Professor Stuart Maudsley graduated with a First Class Honors in Pharmacology from the University of Leeds and was awarded the Pfizer Prize for his undergraduate research project that pioneered novel single cell quantitative pharmacology analyses. Stuart received his PhD from the University of Leeds with the Ackroyd, Brotherton and Brown Scholarship. His post-doctoral mentor was Prof. Robert Lefkowitz (2012 Nobel Laureate) at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Duke University in the USA. Following this training, Stuart returned to the UK to head the Receptor Pharmacology Lab at the University of Edinburgh MRC Human Reproductive Sciences Unit. Stuart was next recruited to be head of the Receptor Pharmacology Unit at the National Institutes of Health National Institute on Aging at Johns Hopkins University in the USA. With the birth of his first daughter, Stuart returned to Europe to where he served as both the Adjunct Director of the VIB Center of Molecular Neurosciences at the University of Antwerp as well as Vice-Chair of Department of Biomedical Sciences. Stuart is currently the leader of the Receptor Biology Lab at the University of Antwerp. Stuart is a strong proponent of recent initiatives to modernize the process of scientific research and publication as well as to improve science culture and communication. Stuart is also developing his first independent start-up concept named HeptOME which will aim to develop novel therapeutics to interdict pathological ageing.
Connect with Stuart Maudsley:
- Twitter: @StuartMaudsley
- LinkedIn: Stuart Maudsley
- ResearchGate: Stuart Maudsley
- Instagram: @receptorbiologylab
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