Not that Kind of Advice: It Is Never Too Early to Be a Mentor
The further I get into running my own research program, the more I realize the significant impact good mentorship has had on my career. My mentors have trained me scientifically, provided career advice, and supported work-life balance. A large impetus for starting this blog has been to share some of the advice, successful experiences, and insider information good mentorship can afford. As always these days, n=me, but I hope I can convince you to do it too.
It is never too early to start: It can be intimidating to offer people advice, but your experiences have more value than you know. Here are some ideas for what to share at all stages of your career.
Graduate Student: If you are a graduate student in your first year, you can help undergraduates in the lab by talking about the graduate school application process, how you picked a school, and selected in which labs to rotate. Tell them what interview days look like, and what is expected of trainees. Be the first set of eyes on their application documents. While the head of the lab, i.e. Principal Investigator (PI), will have plenty of advice to give as well, by the time we are PIs, we have forgotten many of the details. For example, I do not remember if I paid out of pocket for recruiting and was reimbursed or if travel was covered at all. Information like this may not be accessible to the undergraduate in your lab, so share your experiences and limited outcomes, as you can. If you are a more senior graduate student, passing down information about qualifying exams, difficult thesis committee advisors, and thesis writing tips is always welcome.
Postdoc: As a newer postdoc, you are a wealth of information for the graduate students in the lab. Telling them why you picked academia over other careers, how you picked this lab, and your future plans will help them understand the process. If you are a senior postdoc, tell newer postdocs in your circle about the job market and career development awards. The only reason I knew I was supposed to write one was because the senior postdocs in the group did. Share your fellowship applications with other trainees. The vast majority of the time, trainees and PIs are looking for how to put applications together, what to include in letters, and what was successful. Your science is safe.
Junior Faculty: As a new assistant professor, share everything you can from the job search process. I have sent out cover letters, research statements, start-up request Excel sheets, and offer letters. The only way we can promote equity in salary and start-up is by being open with these elements of the offer letter. I also continue to send out my K99/R00 application and R00 transition documents. If you are a more senior assistant professor, help the new faculty like me out by sharing your institutional wisdom, insights into institutional politics, and things you wish you would have done differently. Tips on work-life balance are especially appreciated.
Faculty: For the associate and full professors: thank you for your mentorship. The tenure track can be pretty daunting, and I appreciate all the wisdom on research, scholarship, and service you willingly share. Send me your trainees, and I will see how I can help.
Talk about what you know: Share information in areas of experience. For example, I know a bit about K awards, transition into faculty, and the job market. I watched successful applications written, I wrote one myself, and I see more and more successful (and unsuccessful) K awards every year. I navigated the job market and I have sat on search committees. I can speak to these things with some authority, both as participant in the process and now as observer from the other side. There are things I do not know if I did in the best way, such as spending my start-up, and the best I can do here is say “this is how I did it.” There are other things I am still learning about, like graduate student training, and for that I rely on books and senior colleagues. Be open about the limits of your knowledge.
Accept that not everyone will listen and your advice may be wrong for some listeners: There are multiple paths to take, and not all ways work for all people. For example, several of my colleagues offered very aggressive negotiation techniques that had worked for them. I wasn’t comfortable with these, nor do these approaches work for all who try them, particularly women and underrepresented minorities. Your advice should be one data point and not the only data point.
If you cannot find a way to help, connect peers/trainees with someone who can: I do not have a lot of experience with industry or scientific policy. Luckily, many of my former graduate school friends chose non-PI careers, and occasionally, I connect graduate students and postdocs with them. Do not limit your mentorship to academia. Your network is wider than you know, so use it to help trainees into their desired career path.
Be honest: One of the most important things about being a mentor is being honest with your mentee. Qualifying exams are important, writing a career development award is difficult, and the job market is challenging, but you do not want to discourage mentees from applying. I like to take the approach of “Yes, but…” as in “Yes, the job market is challenging, but I know people that did not have K awards that secured positions. If this is the career you want, you have to try.” Be realistic but do not scare the trainees.
With all this in mind, I hope you will consider sharing your experiences with your juniors and be the mentor you needed at their stage. It is never too early to start and your knowledge is valuable. Stay tuned for more tales!
Did I miss an important point? Do you have questions or concerns about the post? Or perhaps an anecdote to contribute! Feel free to send some electrons my way in the comments, via Twitter @PipetteProtag, or through traditional electronic mail firstname.lastname@example.org