Fear and loathing in academia – Getting the right kind of mentorship

This week I’ve invited a friend and colleague, Hayley Lanier, to contribute a guest post to the Molecular Ecologist.  Hayley is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Michigan, where she works with Lacey Knowles.  She has contributed an excellent post on getting the most out of the mentor/mentee relationship….

My research is focused on species tree estimation, phylogeography, and population structure, but I’ve opted not to talk about any of that today.  Instead, I’d like to focus on mentorship, and how having a good support system can make the uncertain waters of academia easier to navigate.

Noted science blogger and marine scientist Kevin Zelnio hung up his quill this week and moved on to greener pastures (a microbrewery and hostel in Sweden). He chronicles his journey from enthusiastic graduate student to discouraged PhD seeker and how his scientific blogging and freelance writing have developed through the years over at Deep Sea News. His enthusiastic writings and witty posts at DSN and The Other 95% will be missed. Although we have never personally met, Kevin strikes me as a clearly intelligent individual with an amazing capacity for communicating science, and yet his journey through graduate school left him feeling embittered and discouraged. While Kevin identifies many factors that contributed to his disillusionment with academia, one of the things that really stuck out to me was the role that his mentors have played in his frustration (and successes) in science.

Mentorship has been on my mind lately. Our department head met with the postdocs this fall to inform us that we needed to fill out a mentoring plan with our postdoctoral supervisors. While many programs suggest something along the lines of an Individual Development Plan for postdocs, the top down nature of this suggestion seemed so forced that I doubt if anyone has actually followed through with it. I’m not suggesting that mentoring is unimportant, quite the contrary. As in Kevin’s case, a bad mentor or a bad relationship with a mentor can be a contributing factor to leaving science. How can people in situations like Kevin’s get the mentoring and support they need? How can we (as students and postdocs) avail ourselves of mentorship without feeling like we’re just checking off boxes on a standardized test?

Be proactive – Find at least one person, ideally more than one, to talk to about your career, your research, your goals and aspirations. It is unlikely (although not impossible) that potential mentors will seek you out to ask if you need advice. So, reach out to them. Youfig 1 don’t have to ask them to be your mentor in a formal capacity, but you can broaden your network of mentors and advisors formally if you like (e.g., MentorNet ; Association for Women in Science). Or just stop by their office to chat. Invite them out for a cup of coffee or a beer and get to know them. Different people can bring different perspectives to the problems and challenges you face.

Open lines of communication – Check in with your mentor(s) on a regular basis. Let them know what you are working on or what your challenges are. Make sure that you are being honest with them (and with yourself!) about how things are going. This is where having a few different mentors can be useful. Some mentors are easier to talk to about research, whereas others may be particularly insightful about work-life balance. Many of the most successful mentorships I’ve seen have involved informal lines of communication, rather than scheduled ‘mentorship sessions’. But, ultimately, figure out what communication methods work best and stick with it. By keeping your mentor apprised of updates or concerns, you can help head off some of the miscommunication or irritation that can arise when both parties aren’t on the same page.

Learn how to take feedback – This can be a real challenge. If you’re one of those headstrong, thick-skinned individualists you might not be too bothered by being told that your preferred discipline is ‘not real science’, your writing is boring, or your practice talk was god-awful ugly. [True ‘constructive’ feedback, although, thankfully not all leveled at me.] You might be able to divide feedback into useful suggestions and jerk comments quickly. If you’re like many of the rest of us, you may find that constructive criticism of your work can sound an awful lot like not-so-constructive criticism aimed at you. It’s (generally) not. Try to remember that most mentors have your best interest at heart, but they’re just people and may not always find the best way to phrase their feedback. That committee member who just suggested twenty new questions on your thesis chapter? She wasn’t necessarily trying to keep you in graduate school forever; she may have just been excited about some of the possibilities suggested by your data. Work on strategies to take constructive feedback as that, suggestions that are intended to be constructive. Talk it over with someone different (see above on having more than one mentor). Try to take yourself out of the equation and see if their advice has merit. Whatever it takes to let you move past feeling beleaguered and towards determining rationally if their advice has merit.

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Know where you want to go – If you don’t know what your career goals are, you probably aren’t in a very good position to get there. Do you want to end up at a top tier research school? Do you love teaching, and desire a position where teaching is a large percentage of your time? Do you want to go into government work, and have an impact on policy decisions? This is one case where I believe the IDP or mentor-contract plans can be useful. They force you to think about and write out your goals and the intermediate steps to get there and discuss them with your mentor. Hopefully the discussion can go beyond the ‘Publish, and Publish More’ advice that many of us feel like we receive as career guidance. By identifying your career objectives, your mentor(s) can help you determine how to move your career in that direction. Remember that goals can change, just like people change, and it’s all right to readjust your career objectives as you go along. In this case, open and regular communication with your mentor is key. By discussing your goals and ideas as they shift, you may be able to avoid taking the long path through graduate school or a postdoc.

Know when (and how) to say goodbye – Some mentor/mentee relationships are not good, and leave both parties feeling unhappy. As with unhappy families, every unhappy relationship may be unhappy in it’s own way. It may be a personality difference. It may be a difference in expectations. This is when it’s useful to have more than one person you can go to for mentoring. Your PhD advisor may not be able to give you the help that you need, but the postdoc in your lab or the faculty member down the hall may be able to provide important guidance. A second or third mentor can also be good for helping you process difficult constructive feedback from others. It may be that with additional mentoring from others you can get the help you need. However, there may come a point when a relationship goes so far south that it is irretrievable. It can happen – and it’s not just you. At this point, try to act professionally. You may need to discuss the issue in private with a few people, but don’t be the guy who announces his dissatisfaction to the whole building. You’ll probably just make yourself look bad, and burn your bridges to boot. If the relationship that has soured is with your major advisor, talk to another faculty member or the department head about how to proceed. If you can, talk to your major professor and discuss your problems. Remember that they may view the work you have done in their lab as partly their intellectual property, so make sure you discuss how (and when) projects will be written up and who the authors or coauthors will be. Many of the cases of advisor-advisee that I have witnessed have been made needlessly complicated and frustrating for both parties by a lack of communication regarding expectations and timing.

Ultimately, a good mentoring experience can be profoundly rewarding both professionally and personally. Several of the scientists profiled on ME have talked about the importance of good mentorship (e.g., Rosemary Grant and Angela Belcher). Remember even Darwin (by the way, Happy Birthday Charley!) wasn’t an island – he went to friends and colleagues for help.

Loads more advice on creating and maintaining good mentoring relationships can be found at: ScienceCareers.

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About Mark Christie

Mark Christie is a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Zoology at Oregon State University.
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