Let’s Talk: Small-Group Mentoring Dinners

All science graduate students and postdocs face challenges; however, females at every academic level are more likely to abandon research than their male counterparts. Factors contributing to the dropout rate may include a lack of encouragement, difficulty identifying positive role models, and the belief of some women that family and motherhood are incompatible with the scientific lifestyle.

On the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), campus, Women in Life Sciences (WILS) is making progress to combat this trend. WILS is a graduate student and postdoc-run organization founded in 1991 to enhance the personal and professional development of students and postdocs on the UCSF campus. WILS organizes campus programs based on the assumption that mentoring, support, guidance, and networking opportunities will encourage women to continue scientific careers beyond their graduate and postdoc years. Although attendees of WILS programs are primarily women, membership is open to all graduate students, postdocs, faculty, and staff.

The Women Leaders in Science Series (supported in part by a grant from the Genentech Foundation) is a popular WILS program that introduces the campus community to the top-notch research of female scientists. Thrice yearly, a leader in her field is invited to the UCSF campus for a day. Past speakers have included Shirley Tilghman, Lucy Shapiro, and Nancy Hopkins. In addition to giving a 1-hour research presentation and meeting with faculty members, each speaker in the series attends an informal lunch and dinner with students and postdocs.

These meals provide a relaxed setting in which the speakers can discuss the actual practice of science--how to approach research, how to manage students and postdocs, and how to advance professionally. Participants have found these informal meals to be inspirational and informative, and as a direct result of this feedback, WILS created a separate program using dinners as the focal point for small-group mentoring sessions.

More Mentoring at UCSF

Other groups on the UCSF campus offer mentoring programs. If you are interested in implementing a small-group mentoring program at your institution, the following Web sites should get you started:


In the fall of 2001, WILS initiated its mentoring dinner program with the financial support of the UCSF Chancellor?s Advisory Committee for the Status of Women. The plan was simple: Invite female scientists to dinner with small groups of students and postdocs to share their strategies for success. Each semester, WILS arranges two separate mentoring dinners for students and postdocs to discuss their unique issues and obstacles. UCSF alumni or current faculty members are chosen alternately from inside and outside UCSF, making sure that academic and nonacademic career paths are adequately represented.

The dinners are kept small (between six and eight people) to give participants an opportunity to network not only with the mentor, but also with their peers. During the dinners, women freely identify barriers to professional advancement--gender or otherwise--and explore strategies for overcoming them based on the unique experiences of the mentor. Perhaps the most important aspect of such mentoring is the fact that while women may encounter similar roadblocks and face common challenges during their careers, there is no one right answer to any problem. Solutions to all of science?s struggles are as varied as the women that face them.

At the March postdoc mentoring dinner, Howard Hughes investigator and UCSF professor Cori Bargmann spoke candidly about her experiences as an academic scientist, painting a realistic, yet decidedly positive portrait of academia. When asked to identify elements lacking in the postdoc experience, Bargmann responded: "Postdocs don?t get enough advice." While much of the conversation focused on issues that are relevant to all postdocs, others--such as networking, confidence building, and balancing a career with life outside the lab--are particularly important to women scientists.

Networking opportunities are vital to professional advancement, and postdocs--especially women--must aggressively seek them out. Without classes and committee meetings, many postdocs find it difficult to interact with faculty members other than their own advisor, yet are eager to enrich their professional development by making these valuable connections. To increase networking opportunities, Bargmann offered the following suggestions:

  • Ask PIs in labs doing research of interest if you may participate in their lab meetings.

  • Start a journal club in your field of interest and invite faculty members.

  • Initiate formal collaborations with other labs on campus.

A healthy level of self-esteem is essential to career success, yet many female scientists manifest a lack of confidence, often in subtle ways. Participants at the mentoring dinner suggested that women scientists were often insecure about career opportunities and sometimes modest about their scientific achievements. Bargmann acknowledged encountering this defeatist attitude among some women, noting that female scientists conducting "A" level research are "masquerading as B?s." Bargmann encourages women scientists not to let fear and low self-esteem limit their career options. Simply raising awareness is the first step to avoid the lack of confidence pitfall. In addition, exposure to successful role models is inspiring, and in this way, the mentoring dinners are a vehicle for building confidence.

Another major concern for women scientists is the assumption that family life and motherhood are incompatible with the academic science lifestyle. Many believe that industry jobs, with more regular work hours and structure, offer a better quality of life to women scientists. Bargmann indicated that while being a woman in science is not a great obstacle to professional development, being a parent in science--male or female--is still a significant challenge. Despite this, Bargmann argued that it is possible to balance career and family life with some careful planning on both fronts. Increasing efficiency at work and seeking outside help with child care and household responsibilities are important approaches toward achieving balance. At work, scientists should focus on pushing their research forward when their children are small. Although Bargmann recommended devoting up to "20% of your time serving the (scientific) community," she conceded that parents of small children should temporarily limit activities such as grant reviewing, seminars, and committee participation in order to focus on research.

If the response of participants to the latest mentoring dinner is any indication, the program is a great success. WILS mentoring dinners work because they are easy to organize, create an opportunity for students and postdocs to discuss aspects of science that are not typically addressed in other forums, and provide a number of real-life examples for pursuing a successful scientific career that are proven to work!

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