Recently, four senior investigators with long track records of mentoring successful scientists sat down to talk about what trainees and early career faculty need most from mentors.  While it’s key that a mentor tailor the training experience to the mentee’s professional and personal goals, the panel agreed all mentors have these core obligations to their mentees.

Communication

  • A mentor should set expectations and performance goals (one panelist does this with a written compact that both mentor and mentee sign).
  • A mentor should meet with you early and often, whether one-on-one or as part of a research group; they should also be available to you by email or other means of contact.
  • A mentor should provide honest and constructive feedback (and listen when the mentee has feedback for them).

Resources and Connections

  • One of a mentor’s chief responsibilities is to provide financial support (within the scope of their funded research) and access to resources that help you with your research, such as shared equipment, technicians or research assistants, biostatistics consultation, and opportunities to attend relevant research conferences.
  • They should connect you with collaborators and other mentors, especially those who can write letters of support.
  • Mentors should welcome your engagement of other mentors and consultants to fill gaps; one mentor can’t provide everything you need.

Skills

A mentor should help you develop skills, not necessarily scientific, that enable you to do your job:

  • Writing (grants and papers)
  • Presentation skills
  • Leadership, such as leading meetings and conference calls or managing/training personnel
  • Negotiation skills
  • Managing conflict

Protection and Encouragement

  • A mentor should protect you from getting over-extended into projects or clinical work that don’t aid your research.
  • The mentoring relationship is about helping the mentee succeed, not about making the mentor’s own research succeed. They should encourage you to develop a research direction that will ultimately be distinctive from their own.

In return, a mentee is responsible for:

  • Understanding and meeting expectations and performance goals, including working with a mentor to set benchmarks and meeting them.
  • Holding regular advisory committee meetings, reviewing the recommendations and determining a plan for implementation.
  • Being prepared for meetings.
  • Taking advantage of resources offered and connections set up.
  • Practicing and acquiring the skills that are taught.
  • Learning to say “no” to requests that will distract you from your goals.
  • Desiring independence; figuring out how to differentiate yourself from your mentor.

An audience member asked whether it was wise to have a long-distance mentor.  Panelists spelled out the pros and cons, but noted there were mostly cons:  A mentor at another institution can’t perform the vital task of helping you navigate your own university’s administrative and political landscape.  They may know the right person to ask for time on an expensive instrument or access to research nurses at their institution, but not yours.  You also need to be careful in grant applications to spell out exactly how the long-distance mentoring will work:  How often will you Skype or FaceTime, how many times a year will you fly up to your mentor’s lab?  But it can be done.  A better option may be to have a long-distance expert on your research advisory committee or mentor panel, which should have a wider variety of mentors on it.  (Primary mentors at your home institution but outside your department are fine as long as you can access them, panelists said.)

Mentoring is a lifelong commitment, not just a few years of interaction while you’re in their lab or part of the research team.  One of our panelists still regularly chats with her master’s degree mentor, who is 92 years old.  Because a mentor’s entire goal is to help you leave the nest, they want to keep watching you fly.

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