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Mentoring: An Essential Part-time Job


Mentoring is essentially the experienced teaching the less experienced. It is often the primary way that newcomers are assimilated into a culture, and it can be one of the best ways to learn because it is one-on-one, tailored to the questions that are most pressing to the mentee, and optimally involves mutual respect between the mentor and mentee.

The scientific culture relies heavily on mentoring to train the next generation of researchers. Young scientists learn a wide variety of things from their mentors including how to design and carry out a scientific project, how to read, write, and speak about science, and how to approach science in an ethical and collegial way. They also learn about more practical aspects of a career in science, such as how to balance work and family life and how to manage a lab full of very different and sometimes colorful personalities. Because mentoring is of such central importance, it is worth giving careful thought to how best to mentor and be mentored in a scientific setting. This case study raises several interesting issues such as who young scientists should look to for mentoring and how trainees can learn what they need to know without overtaxing their mentors.

The most obvious candidate to mentor a young scientist is that person's advisor. The advisor has an obligation to mentor his or her students and postdocs because by accepting them into the lab, he or she has made a commitment to their education and training. Students and postdocs are trainees and although they will hopefully contribute to their advisor's productivity, they are also entitled to guidance that will help them move on to the next step of their careers. On the other hand, it would be almost impossible for an advisor to fail to be a mentor to members of his or her lab because much of mentoring occurs through following a more experienced person's example. Students learn an enormous amount simply from observing how their advisor goes about the daily business of doing science. The advisor can be a better mentor by being willing to answer junior scientists' questions and by introducing lab members to some of the duties that are generally reserved for more senior scientists, such as review of manuscripts or grant writing. Very little mentoring needs to occur in scheduled meetings like those described in the case study. In fact, this arrangement robs the mentoring relationship of the spontaneity and informality that are among the best things about it.

Because there are unlimited ways to navigate a scientific career, it is in young scientists' best interests to seek out mentors other than their advisors so they can gather different perspectives and opinions on issues that concern them. Mentoring in this situation also need not be formal. Ideally, the students should cultivate friendly relationships with as many faculty members as possible to whom they can speak on a regular basis in relaxed settings such as over lunch or before seminars. Discussions can be brief and flexible so they do not become a burden for the faculty member. Both junior and senior faculty members are valuable sources of wisdom because they will have different perspectives. When asked about conduct on a job interview, a junior faculty member will be able to recount stories of their job search whereas a senior person can describe, for example, their experiences on hiring committees.

Members of underrepresented groups, such as Professor Jones, face complicated challenges when deciding who and how to mentor. Minorities will benefit in the long run from encouraging members of their group to continue in science. If more women become professors, there will be more female mentors for young women, thereby spreading out the mentoring workload. And as women become better represented on science faculties, female students will feel less like there are gender-specific issues that compel them to preferentially seek out female mentors. In addition, science as a whole is hurt when talented minority scientists leave the field because they feel alienated.

However, it is unfair to expect Professor Jones to take on disproportionate mentoring responsibilities just because she is a member of an underrepresented group. Junior professors already have extremely busy and stressful professional lives. Having a mentor who has accepted the role grudgingly or who is constantly pressed for time may be worse than having no mentor at all. Perhaps Sarah would be best served if Professor Jones declines to meet with her, allowing Sarah to see how a female professor can diplomatically extricate herself from being assigned an excessive number of duties "because she's a woman."

Students from underrepresented groups also should realize that young scientists share the majority of their questions. Sarah does not need to consult a woman to find out when it is best to apply for grants, and even questions about which universities are family-friendly, a concern that is traditionally attributed to women, may also be answered by male faculty members with young children. There will almost certainly be some topics on which faculty from underrepresented groups have a unique perspective or that students will prefer to discuss with someone from the same background as theirs. In these cases, a faculty member could hold a discussion with a group of interested students or distribute written answers to commonly asked questions so as to help a large number of students with a limited investment of time.

Finally, Sarah has made a couple of mistakes in her quest for a mentor: She has waited until the end of her postdoc to begin making connections with other faculty members and she expects Professor Jones to provide the bulk of guidance for her job search. This approach puts undue pressure on Professor Jones who must decide between making a major time commitment to Sarah or refusing her request. If, instead, Sarah had sought out several members of her department as resources and had worked with them over a period of years, she could have learned many of the ins and outs of job searching before this point and be in a good position to get answers to any new questions that she has. Mentoring can be most beneficial for both the mentor and the mentee when the teaching and learning occur so informally and gradually that neither person necessarily realizes what is taking place. It has been a success if the mentee comes away with enough knowledge and skill to feel comfortable in their environment and confident making decisions about their future.

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