The Importance of Mentoring for Postdoctoral Fellows

The Importance of Mentoring for Postdoctoral Fellows
2 years ago

The Importance of Mentoring for Postdoctoral Fellows

So you are a postdoctoral fellow. Perhaps you just started and are at the beginning of your postdoctoral training. You are still making your way around a new lab and getting to know everyone. You have a lot of questions. You need to ask someone. 

That someone can be your mentor.

Or perhaps you are in the middle of your postdoctoral training. You have decided on the project and are already starting to get some interesting data. You might be thinking about applying for a postdoctoral fellowship to a non-profit or NIH. You have lots of questions. You need to ask someone. 

That someone can be your mentor.

Finally, you might be completing your postdoctoral fellowship. Your first author publication is submitted to a peer-reviewed journal and is currently under review. You are thinking about your career trajectory and the next steps you want to make. You might be considering a career as an academic principal investigator (PI) or a career in industry, or perhaps you have questions about those alternative careers you keep hearing about. You need to ask someone. 

That someone can be your mentor.


Why should I get mentored?

Mentoring is absolutely critical for success for postdoctoral fellows.

“If you don’t know where you are going you might end up someplace else.” - Yogi Berra

Mentoring leads to professional development and career advancement. However, you might ask, why would anyone want to mentor me and invest their time and energy into me? Believe it or not, there are many individuals who are interested in mentoring you. Mentoring benefits not only the mentee but also the mentor. Mentoring relationships provide opportunities for mentors to work with incredible people such as yourself. Mentors get to help, get to pay forward for the mentorship they received. Mentors get to expand their network. They realized that it is who you know that’s important.


Mentoring seems hard, you might say. It takes effort, time and planning. For those of us who are introverts, it takes extra effort to come out of the safety of our “shell”. However, mentoring is something you are already engaging in. 

  1. You must be working with your primary postdoctoral advisor. The relationship with that individual is the most important relationship during your postdoctoral training. That individual can make or break your career. So, cherish that relationship, take good care of it. It will pay off. 
  2. Some programs require postdoctoral fellows to have a secondary postdoctoral advisor. If that is not the case at your institution, I suggest you go out and find yourself a secondary postdoctoral advisor, someone whom you can ask questions the primary advisor cannot answer. 
  3. Finally, do not underestimate the value of peer mentoring. If you are at an academic institution, there must be other postdoctoral fellows who have been through what you are going through. You are going through the same experience that can be shared.


What is mentoring?

There are 3 types of mentors: mentors, sponsors, coaches. I suggest you get at least one of each. Mentor is someone who can share their career trajectory for you to potentially emulate. Sponsor is someone who advocates on your behalf behind closed doors when you are not present. That individual might be your postdoctoral advisor who is covering your salary and financially supporting the project you are working on. Coach is someone who asks you the tough questions to help you resolve specific challenges you are facing. Coaches are focused on you. Thus, each type of mentor serves a different function and they all can be helpful.


How should I seek a mentor?

There are 2 ways to get mentored: formally and informally. As part of your postdoctoral training, you might have a yearly career conference with your postdoctoral advisor where you discuss your progress and future directions. You might discuss the professional development opportunities to pursue, etc. This is an example of formal mentoring. Another way to get mentored formally is by reaching out to individuals that you have a weak or no connection to via email or social media and requesting an informational interview. Informational interview is an interview that you conduct face-to-face, over the phone or via zoom. That involves you asking questions about that individual’s career trajectory. That information might prove helpful when navigating your career.

Informal mentoring happens when you meet one of your peers, for instance, in the hallway on your way to the lab and start asking questions. You can gain a lot of useful information during chance encounters with your peers.


Where should I seek a mentor?

This brings us to where to get mentored. To increase the probability of success, that is the probability that a potential mentor will agree to mentor you, you might want to catch them in the state of mind where they are open to a mentoring opportunity. Scientific meetings, departmental retreats, out-of-town seminars are all fantastic opportunities. These settings provide the environment when individuals are open to networking and meeting new colleagues. These are fantastic venues to approach potential mentors.


When should I get started?

Now. There is no time like now. The earlier you start, the better are your chances of succeeding as a postdoctoral fellow and making a successful transition to your next career stage.


About the author

Ksenia Kastanenka is an Assistant Professor at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. She gained a PhD in Neuroscience at Case Western Reserve University, USA, and has worked on several projects focussing on addiction as well as Alzheimer’s Disease.

Connect with Ksenia:


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