The Life Scientists’ Guide to Mentoring
Effective mentoring is generally considered essential in the development of a successful STEM professional. No matter what stage you’re at in your life science career, you can always benefit from the advice and guidance of a trusted mentor. Finding the right mentor and maintaining a good relationship takes time, work and commitment, but the rewards can be invaluable. Becoming a mentor to others can be equally as rewarding, but it’s a big commitment and a role you should only take on when you feel you are ready.
Whether you’re looking for guidance from a new mentor, or are considering becoming a mentor yourself, we’ve gathered essential advice and tips from professional life scientists to help make the experience a positive one for both mentor and mentee. In this life science guide we share valuable advice for those hoping to step up and become mentors, as well as tips for those looking for the right person to help them unlock the potential of their life science career.
Part 1: The Mentor’s Guide to Mentoring
Why should I become a mentor?
Becoming a mentor is your opportunity to pass down your knowledge and experience to others. It’s a rewarding experience that will give you renewed purpose and help create a legacy for your work as a scientist. Mentoring is also a two-way learning experience, and although you will be considered the ‘senior’ partner in the relationship, there will be plenty that you can learn from your mentee. Yes, it may be time-consuming, but you will certainly grow as a scientist and as a person from the experience.
Think back to your earlier years as a scientist and remember the help and support you received from others. Where would you be without it? How many hours would you have wasted in the lab without key pieces of advice and guidance from your mentors? Becoming a mentor yourself is your opportunity to give back, or ‘pay forward’ the help that was given to you.
Raquel Campos of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro is a postdoctoral researcher who enjoys giving back. In this interview with us she said: “I strongly believe that knowledge should be shared, especially because at least 80% of the things I know how to do today are because someone took the time and had the patience to teach me, so I believe it’s part of my duty as a scientist to do the same for others. Also, it is really rewarding to see my students grow and perform the experiments by themselves.”
Professor Stuart Maudsley of the Receptor Biology Lab at the University of Antwerp has been mentoring young scientists for many years. In his guest article on Why Scientists Need Great Mentors, he shared his thoughts on the challenges and rewards of mentoring, and how his own mentor inspired him: “Mentoring is, like science itself, not for the fainthearted. It is a largely selfless, constant, passionate, difficult, yet immensely rewarding activity. As a young scientist, seeing, hearing and feeling the ‘belief’ of my boss, in my work and what I was doing, was perhaps the most important thing he could do for me.”
What qualities are needed to be an effective mentor?
To be a good mentor you will need to draw upon not only your professional experience but also your interpersonal skills in order to maintain good lines of communication and to bring out the best in your mentee.
- Communication skills - having the ability to communicate clearly and concisely, to explain what is expected from your mentee and to ensure the relationship is working for both of you
- Listening skills - essential for understanding what your mentee needs from you and to be able to give the right advice at the right time
- Honesty and trust - the ability to speak openly and honestly with your mentee, and to potentially handle difficult conversations in an unbiased and measured way
- Bigger picture thinking - seeing beyond the day-to-day tasks of your mentee and having a wider view of their potential career options
In your role as a life science mentor you will not only be expected to support your mentee with practical advice in wet lab sessions, but also to offer career advice and guidance. Having the ability to draw upon your own experiences will be helpful to your mentee. They can learn from both the good and bad decisions you have made in your career, so be prepared to be open and honest in this respect.
Maria Velasco Estevez, a postdoc researcher at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre shares her advice for new mentors in her guest article on The Importance of Mentoring in Science. She explains why it’s important to share your own career experiences with your mentee: “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 openly about your own experiences.”
Set out expectations from day one
Each person is different and each mentee will need different things from you. It’s important to both set out your expectations from day one to avoid problems and misunderstandings further down the line. Finding out exactly what your mentee hopes to get from a mentor will help you to make a plan and set targets for your working relationship together.
Ask the questions:
- What are their career goals?
- How do they feel about where they are currently?
- Where do they see themselves in 5-10 years?
- What do they hope to get from the mentoring process?
- How do they think you can help?
- What are their preferred methods of communication?
Be clear and let your mentee know what is and is not acceptable, for example whether or not you are happy to be contacted outside of work hours. Mutual respect is essential, and finding a communication method that works for both of you should be a priority from the outset to avoid potential conflict.
Giving and receiving feedback
As a mentor you will be expected to give regular feedback to your mentee. Try to do this in a clear and concise way, and deliver any criticism in a constructive manner. Be mindful of the impact that negative feedback could have, and draw upon your existing leadership skills to help you handle any moments of conflict, disagreement, or emotional upset.
Be prepared also to receive feedback on your mentoring. If your mentee is unhappy it’s important that they feel comfortable enough to let you know. If the relationship between you is to be a successful and productive one, two-way feedback will be a vital factor. Maria Velasco Estevez stresses the importance of developing an understanding of different mentorship styles and sharing appropriate feedback. She said: “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.”
Only mentor when you feel ready
The role of mentor is a big responsibility and not one you should take on if you don’t feel ready. Being confident in your skills as a scientist will ensure you offer the best of yourself to a potential mentee. Understand that it might be time-consuming and mentally draining, so be sure that you have both the time and the emotional capacity to support another scientist in this way.
Be open-minded and prepared to learn along the way, and understand that the process of explaining your science to someone else can become a learning experience for you too. Maria Velasco Estevez reinforced this point: “Taking a positive attitude and an open mind when you start out as a mentor can help you not to feel overwhelmed and will make it more enjoyable and valuable for both you and your mentee. 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. 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!”
- Mentoring can benefit you just as much as the mentee
- Honesty is key to building an effective relationship with your mentee
- It’s ok to say no if you don’t feel ready to mentor someone
Part 2: The Mentee’s Guide to Mentoring
Why do I need a mentor?
Having a trusted mentor on your side can be a life-changing experience and one that can propel your career to the next level. A good mentor will provide not only practical advice within your field of study, but will also be able to offer career guidance, and put you in contact with the right people to get you to where you want to be.
It’s important to remember that mentoring isn’t just for early career scientists. At every stage of your life science career you can benefit from support from someone senior, and this natural ‘passing down’ of knowledge is how science research has progressed and developed over generations. Stuart Maudsley reinforces this point: “I truly believe that all of the wonders in our modern scientific world are solely the result of great mentoring. The technical aspects of science always change, but the essence of generous and compassionate care of students represents the real driving force of innovation and development.”
Dr Enitome Bafor of the National Cancer Institute, USA, is another experienced mentor who works particularly closely with women and minority groups. In this article on Navigating the Mentor-Mentee Relationship she told us why she appreciates the value of mentoring: “The reality is we all need some form of mentoring at every stage of our lives. Good mentorship can help pull down barriers in science and academia, especially for underrepresented minorities. This can happen because mentors provide knowledge, resource access, networking, skill development and support, which could otherwise be difficult to attain.”
How do I find a good mentor?
Mentoring can happen in a formal or an informal manner, but many mentor-mentee relationships will develop naturally as you are introduced to new colleagues or contacts during your career. You may already be working alongside someone you feel you really click with, and a mentorship bond forms as you collaborate in the same fields of study. Some institutes will have formal mentoring schemes that can pair you with a suitable mentor who has matching areas of interest.
There may be someone within your institute that you admire and look up to as a role model who you would like to learn from. It’s perfectly acceptable to approach a person in this scenario to discuss the possibility of a mentoring relationship. Your enthusiasm and the fact that you have used your initiative to make contact will usually be a positive in this situation. In his 12-Step Guide to Getting the Most from Your Mentors, Stuart Maudsley agrees that a proactive approach helps to make a great impression: “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.”
Remember that it’s ok to have more than one mentor, and this again will likely happen naturally as you move through different stages of your career. You may seek different mentors for different areas of support, eg. a practical lab mentor, an emotional mentor, a career development mentor, etc. The more guidance you receive, the more well-rounded you will become as a scientist and as a person. Stuart Maudsley shares his own personal experience on this: “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.”
What should I look for in a mentor?
It’s important to choose your mentors wisely, and finding the right person is vital if you want to develop a successful and long-lasting relationship. Think about what you want to achieve in the coming years and consider the type of person that could help make that happen.
- Relevant skills and experience - a potential mentor should be working in a relevant field of study and should have skills that you wish to learn from
- Compatibility - you must be sure that you will ‘get along’ with your mentor and that you have compatible personalities and working styles
- Communication skills - your mentor should be a good communicator who will speak to you openly and honestly, difficulties will arise quickly if you are unable to communicate effectively
- A good network - you will benefit greatly from a mentor who is well connected and has a strong network of contacts within your field
What should I do if things go wrong?
We are all human and with any human relationship there can be problems, misunderstandings and conflict. Honest communication is key to avoiding many of these issues, and addressing problems as soon as they arise is equally as important. If you feel that things really aren’t working for you or you’re not getting what you need from your mentor, it’s perfectly acceptable to bring that relationship to a close.
Dr Enitome Bafor stresses the importance of emotional intelligence and understanding when handling situations like these to avoid any knock-on negativity. She said: “When a mentorship ends on poor terms it can negatively impact the mentee much more than the mentor, regardless of who is to blame. Aim for an amicable parting without burning bridges. Developing one’s emotional intelligence competencies can prove extremely useful in managing mentor-mentee relationships.”
- Always be honest with yourself and your mentor
- Don’t expect the world from your mentor, be appreciative of their time and experience
- Compatibility is vital for an effective partnership
More mentoring advice on the Hello Bio blog
If you’d like to read more on the subject on mentoring, why not check out these great articles by guest contributors to the Hello Bio blog:
- Why Scientists Need Great Mentors - by Professor Stuart Maudsley
- Navigating the Mentor-Mentee Relationship - by Dr Enitome Bafor
- The Importance of Mentoring for Postdoctoral Fellows - by Ksenia Kastanenka
- The 12-Step Guide to Getting the Most From Your Mentors - by Professor Stuart Maudsley
- The Importance of Mentoring in Science & Tips for New Mentors - by Maria Velasco Estevez
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