Brianna Blaser at Science Careers moderated a panel of experts, who discussed the challenges associated with mentoring early-career scientists in a webinar this week. Emil Chuck of George Mason University spoke on behalf of advisers for high school and undergraduate students, Jonathon Jacobs of MedImmune spoke about his firm's mentoring program which tackles "obstacles that are unique in making the transition into industry," and Ruth Pfeiffer at the National Cancer Institute shared her expertise as a mentor for a diverse group of more than a dozen mentees in the past decade.
Mentee Seeking Mentor In Search of Long-term Relationship
Among the main talking points on which the experts converged throughout the webinar, the advisers all stressed that mentoring is a long-term relationship, which requires an equal dedication of time, and effort, from both the mentor and mentee in order to be successful. "Mentoring and advising is strongly intermingles into my daily operations ... and the energy can be really wonderful" when working with young investigators, Pfeiffer said. "On the downside, it can take a lot of time if one takes it seriously. It can be a time-sink." Jacobs said that every mentor-mentee relationship is a "two-way street," and that "the longer you work at the relationship, the better you're going to be able to give advice to them."
Pfeiffer said that becoming close with her mentees has, in the past, presented predicaments. While mentors can better advise a student when they know the needs and desires of the mentee, it can also complicate the relationship. "[If] I'm emotionally involved in her success as well, it can be very stressful," she says. It's best, Pfeiffer says, to "keep it a professional relationship. ... [It] gets murky if it gets too friendly, too personal." Chuck said that while some advisors prefer a "more personal sort of relationship," it's best to aid mentees in evaluating their personal lives for themselves. Still, Pfeiffer said, sometimes mentors must a mentee's life situation in order to appropriately assess how realistic their goals may be. "Certain goals cannot be met under certain circumstances," she said, adding that she "certainly don't want to make anybody late to day care to pick up their kid."
'Achievable, Measurable Goals'
All three panelists emphasized the importance of laying out a "contract" of goals and expectations. This "provides a very solid foundation so we know what to expect from day one," Jacobs said. He also stressed the importance of tracking a mentees progress through a series of 'achievable, measurable goals.' Pfeiffer added that for her part, she is responsible for providing the scientists she mentors with a mix of projects that are especially challenging, and those that are less so, so that "some visible progress is being made at most times." Mentees must come to understand that "you can't move forward unless something fails," Chuck added.
Seek a Second Opinion
Jacobs said that, sometimes, it's best for mentees to reach out and seek alternative advice. "Find someone whose careers path you admire and don't be afraid to approach them," he said. "Getting advice and input from someone who's not directly engaged in" one's day-to-day activities supplies "a fresh perspective," he added. Pfeiffer said that she suggests all her mentees seek a second mentor. Chuck agreed, and suggested that early-career investigators also seek advisers in professional organizations outside of science.
Of course, not every mentor-mentee relationship is a mutually beneficial one. Sometimes, a young scientist determines that it's in their best interest to just move on. Pfeiffer says that in those cases, both parties will feel the relief. "If the mentee is unhappy, the montor will be unhappy as well," she said. "I can guarantee that." Chuck added that it's only natural for scientists to evolve as professionals. There is "nothing wrong with looking for a new lab, new branch, or new manager," Pfeiffer said. "I don't think it's necessary to prolong a negative experience." Jacobs added that it's best to be honest and upfront when either party is unfulfilled in the partnership. "There's going to be difficult conversations throughout any mentor-mentee relationship," he said. "You can't shy away from it," as the situation will only become worse.
Honesty and Homework
The panelists emphasized that mentors of early-career scientists have a responsibility to be honest with their protégés, no matter how difficult it may be. Chuck said that sometimes mentors must be willing to point out their students' flaws in order to strengthen them as scientists. It can be difficult, he said, but it's important to "talk about your [mentee's] blindspots and really locate opportunities to address those areas." Pfeiffer said that she's faced tough situations where she, not a native of the US herself, has had to point out foreign students' speech and/or writing flaws. Jacobs said that he's had to help a student realize that her goals were not achievable in the timeline they had set.
In order to prepare for situations that can arise, mentors must do their homework. Jacobs and Chuck pointed to several books which detail advice for new advisers. "Anyone who is going to be participating in the act of mentor-mentee relationships sort of owes it to themselves to at least pick up one of these books and take a look at what the current mindset is," Jacobs said, adding that it's "important to not just assume you can be a good mentor without doing your homework ahead of time." When he faces a career-advice conundrum, Jacobs said his "first line of reference is to go back to one of my past mentors."
Blast from the Past
For this reason, Jacobs said, it's important that mentees keep in touch with their past mentors. Keep them in the loop, he said, so that when you need advice, yourself, "they won't be like 'Oh, I haven't heard from you in 15 years.'" Pfeiffer agreed. She said she keeps in contact with all of her former mentors. "I had a very good postdoc experience, so I am using my former mentor as a mentor," she said. "I try to imitate them and seek their advice actively."