Unavailable mentors, or those who do not provide enough freedom, or who do not provide feedback, or who don’t take concerns seriously, are often anchored in one problem: Having a single mentor. You need a mentor panel.

We believe in diversified mentoring so strongly at our institution that early career faculty can’t seek a career development award without selecting a panel. How do you form a panel? Let your primary mentor know you have been advised to form a mentor panel in order to tap into specialized areas of technical expertise, access key resources, and add role models for your likely career path. Ask for his/her advice, and introductions as possible. Your current mentor will recognize your plan is mature and may be relieved to share some of the responsibility for helping you launch your career.

Top priority is a proven track record. Seek established faculty known for both quality of their scholarship and quality of their mentorship. What does that mean?  In an era of CVs on line and searchable grant funding, seek those with an enduring record of strong extramural funding and scholarly productivity. The new assistant professor in the lab next door who is young, approachable and savvy can of course still be a sounding board and help with troubleshooting. But s/he is not typically experienced enough to have these traits that you also want:

  • Collaborative skill as evidenced by success guiding multidisciplinary or collaborative research teams and experience in developing funding resources that link investigators in new ways such as program project grants, large scale contracts, and national research networks.
  • Familiarity with institutional resources as evidenced by their research teams, including trainees, making use of pilot funding, cores, and key training resources.
  • Track record with prior mentees as assessed by career progression of the faculty members whom they mentored, including progression to tenure track, publication, funding history, and tenure of the mentee.
  • Recognition of dedication to mentoring among their trainees and formally as mentors for trainees associated with T32, F32, K08, K23, K12, KL2, K99 and other career development funding mechanisms.
  • A known white hat with commitment to the highest standards for responsible conduct of research.

Don’t duplicate skill sets when you build your mentor team. You won’t need two individuals with flow cytometry expertise, or two with clinical content expertise in your condition of interest, or who use the same PET scanning technique you aim to use, or the same statistical methods. Meet potential mentors briefly (30 minutes) and have a specific ask in mind:

“Could I come to your lab over the next three months to learn the [name of hottest, newest technique here]?”

“Would you consider advising me on the IRB challenges of launching my first multi-site intervention trial during the coming year?”

What will they do for you? Be prepared to describe how you envision working together:  “I plan to have my full mentor panel meet twice a year to review my progress and suggest new opportunities. Between those formal meetings I would hope to touch base with you [on a schedule that averages ≤ once a month].” For instance plan to meet after data is compiled and when you think you have completed data cleaning, meet to get feedback on manuscript drafts, or to review preliminary output from new assay method, etc.

Organize your full panel meetings well. Of course provide your updated and pristeenly formatted CV. But also prepare key visuals. These often include a cartoon of how the various experiments or projects you are working on fit together thematically and a summary timeline. Timelines should lay out what you have been doing and include key tasks completed, manuscripts submitted and accepted, grants submitted, pending resubmission, and funded. Anchor this with key milestones such as date you were hired and when your tenure review will be. And most importantly know what you want to ask of them and from them. Ask for feedback about pace and productivity. Ask if you have overlooked any key opportunities. Ask in the group for discussion of areas in which you are getting conflicting advice and stick with the discussion until a plan emerges. And most importantly, with them all together, ask for things you want that they can easily give you:

  • Would one of you be able to introduce me to Dr. Big Dog at the ACS meeting?
  • I would like to review for [my key journal] – could you recommend me as a reviewer or allow me to co-review with you for experience?
  • Would it be possible for me to get more run time on [the most expensive equipment] in the shared facility?
  • Could I consult with your statistician about a better way to model time-dependent covariates?

A psychological principal called reciprocity suggests that individuals who help you are more invested in your success. Give them ways to help you. Mentor panels diversify input, give you more ports if there is a storm, expand the number of faculty who advocate for you, and teach you to synthesize sometimes disparate opinions. They prepare you better than a single mentor to captain your own ship.

Center for Human Genetics Research Laboratory (Vanderbilt Photo / Daniel Dubois)

Additional Resources

How to Choose a Lab and Mentor According to #AcademicTwitter
All About My Mentor
Not that Kind of Committee: Tales of Faculty Committee Design

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1 Comment

I think this is sound advice and I’ve seen folks work with their mentoring committees to overcome curmudgeonly chairs, lift administrative burdens and other important feats of academic strength.
My two caveats would be:
1) try to get representation that ‘looks like you’ only is more senior. A group of older male colleagues may have great writing advice, but little idea how your career pacing will be different if you are, say, a new mom.
2) use your first mentoring meeting as a screening tool. I seen real life tools get placed on mentoring committees and then the poor junior faculty feels stuck with them. While someone may have all the right cred on paper, you want to see them interact with you *and* your mentoring team before you lock them down for the long haul.
Here’s hoping glam journals start publishing some of this helpful advice!

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