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What to Look for in a Good Mentor

Posted in: Dealing with Fellow Scientists
What to Look for in a Good Mentor


For every half-way decent mentor or adviser that an aspiring scientist comes across, it sometimes seems as though there is another lurking, who is simply a jerk*. Let’s face it – scientists aren’t consistently “people-persons.” Maybe they had bad mentors, and inadvertently end up passing on the karma. Or maybe science just attracts a higher-than-average number of socially inept individuals – who knows.

Having a good mentor or adviser though can make an enormous impact, not just on the connections that you gain by being associated with him or her, but on your psyche. Your mentor can greatly influence your productivity, be constructive rather than personally egregious, and help you anticipate the pitfalls of a career in science through their greater experience.

What constitutes good scientific mentoring though? Back in June, Nature published a feature “guide for mentors,” that caught my eye then and I had just thought to come back to. A flavor of the things mentioned:

1. A distinction between mentoring and supervising. It is far preferable to work for someone who places a special focus on helping to build the young scientist’s career. Yet, it seems that very few professors think beyond the end of your stay with their labs or classes.

2. Enthusiasm is infectious. Well, it seems that way anyway. But there is something to be said for positivity – in the long run, it’s a better way to motivate than being demanding; and if your adviser isn’t enthusiastic about your research, maybe you’ve found the wrong adviser. This goes hand-in-hand with a later piece of advice

3. Letting the student take public credit for work done. This is a big one. Some of the best mentors resist the urge to create grand (manipulative) imperatives for students and postdocs. They let younger colleagues take their ideas and run with them, even letting them be lead authors on projects that began from their own ideas. They let younger colleagues present and publish research that may be critical of some aspect of their work, even helping them to articulate the issues and supporting open inquiry of themselves. And they lobby for an opportunity for a postdoc to speak at conferences rather than doing so themselves, because they recognize the value of becoming known.

4. Balancing direction and self-direction. You don’t want a micro-manager, nor do you want a mentor who will leave you to ‘sink or swim.’ A good mentor will give useful tips, ideas and suggestions, and help to recognize ‘dead ends,’ but otherwise let their younger colleagues discover and develop insights for themselves. Such mentoring strategies foster independence of thought, creativity and critical thinking. They empower the student to feel less like an underling, and more like a collaborator.

5. Skill development (of course). This is really a catch-all for the items towards the end of the feature, each having its own section. These include: being widely read; the initial project; celebration; both giving and dealing with critical analysis of discussions stemming from scientific publications and presentations; writing. In other words, actual development of skills that will be needed later in their careers.

*=Then again, maybe I’ve just had a couple bad impressions. But from what I gather having talked to other young researchers, I’m not too off the mark.

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