Despite its title this post is not about kowtowing to senior academics, it’s about mentorship. What it is, why it’s useful and how to find it. It’s both for those seeking mentors and for those on the journey to becoming one.
I’ll start this one with an anecdote.
Oxford has a lot of odd formal dinners. People put on robes, talk Latin, leave and arrive at tables in a specific order, it’s all very 1659. Whilst the introvert in me detests these interactions they do provide the opportunity for an alternate perspective on life. One particular evening I was dining in college with my very good friend Helen, she was a post-doc and I was a PhD student. We happened to get seated next to the ex-head of the Saïd Business School and so we were telling him about science, and he was telling us about management. We outlined to him how it was entirely possible to become really very senior in academic research with absolutely no people skills at all.
He was horrified.
‘But these people are in management roles, and they have no managerial training?’
And the truth is that no, we don’t. Much like many of the other skills we are expected to acquire in science; the ability to write well, the ability to review fairly, the ability to teach and manage budgets, it is just assumed we will learn how to manage a lab ‘on the job’ as it were.
So, let’s start with some basic definitions of mentorship. I’ve just spent an age googling variations on the theme of ‘define mentorship’ and the results were many and varied, but the message that emerged from the fog of opinion pieces and scientific literature was that a mentor is one who imparts tacit knowledge.
Brian Uzzi, the author of an excellent PNAS paper on mentor-protégé relationships, said that “It’s the unwritten knowledge we intuitively convey through our interactions and demonstrations with students that makes a real difference for mentees.” This paper demonstrated that imparting tacit knowledge was key to the success of the protégé. They quote Einstein as saying “The value of an education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks”1
But how do you apply this in the lab? It’s important to note here that training is not the same as mentorship. Training is what you get to teach you how to pipette, how to count cells, how to run the flow cytometer, how to not pour liquid nitrogen on your feet. Mentorship takes that training and shapes it into research. Bob Weinberg gave a wonderful interview on the Lonely Pipette podcast where he outlined a great strategy on how to do this. He said “The most common mistake is to micromanage a person rather than let him or her sink or swim a little bit, to flounder a little bit on their own, to begin to be forced to think in great detail about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, whether the experiment is practical and whether anyone in the world will ever care about whatever they discover.” 2
For this reason, slightly more senior academic staff might be a safer bet, as risky as that statement sounds. Junior staff, at least in the UK, are often on fixed contracts. They’re working off small fellowships or short grants and so what they often want you to do is turn up, do the work and do it well and so there is a propensity to micromanage for their own interests. More established academics are more likely to have the economic freedom for failure. Having said that, more established academics often have little time or patience for the nuance of good mentoring, so a balance must be found.
Which leads us nicely to peer-to-peer mentoring. This cannot be underestimated as a thing. As early career researchers progress there are nagging doubts and worries that might plague them that they are simply too embarrassed to take to senior academics. “I feel like a failure”, “Are my ideas any good?” and my favourite one “Everyone else seems to be doing so much better than me”. These kinds of inherent worries are not necessarily for a formal meeting but are for a coffee, or for a glass of wine. Confidences shared between people who often have the same worries.
My own experience of this is with my friend Helen. She’s a couple of years ahead of me in her career and is more established in her independence. We recently had a call where the sole aim was for us to sound out our science ideas to someone who knew roughly what we did, in order to establish whether they made sense. We gave each other feedback on what we found exciting about the others’ science, how we might pitch it if it were us and threw in some ideas that we might not have thought of as individuals. It was mutually beneficial and is an excellent example of peer-to-peer mentoring. But I have lots of examples like this and lots of friends who help me out. I think they’ve got used to my random, no-social-skills WhatsApp messages that just start with ‘can I ask you a dumb question?’.
For more formal top-down mentoring I have established connections with senior academics within my institution but outside my field of research, as well as those in my field of research but outside my institution. This highlights another important point, it’s useful to have several mentors for different facets of your research career. Within my institution my mentors help me decide whether I’m at an appropriate career stage to apply for specific positions, what the obvious ‘holes’ might be in my CV and whether my science is ticking along as it should be. Outside my institution my mentors help me see the big picture for my research, they help me frame ideas and act as sounding boards.
How you go about finding these people will depend on you. For me the relationships developed organically. People I met at conferences, people I bumped into through mutual connections. I hope one of my favourite mentors Lorraine won’t mind me saying that a) she is one of my favourite mentors and b) the way I started talking to her was by excitedly waving a conference notebook under her nose to show her we worked on the same thing!
Because the mentor-mentee relationship is so much about the passing on of tacit information it should be open. These should be people you are comfortable with, comfortable enough to ask what you might consider a ‘dumb question’. Which is why, for an early career researcher, it might be important for you to search outside your lab for good mentorship. Your PI may be very hands off. Very old school. Willing to watch you sink or swim but with no interest in whether you drown and no willingness to buoy you up when you do swim. These people will not help your career.
Remember, mentorship is also about helping you learn about yourself. So, when you do sink does that make you decide to give up and drown, swim to shore or shout for help? This kind of self-reflection should be something your mentors encourage. After all, a career in research, especially academic research, is a hard, thankless, gruelling and unstable career choice and isn’t for everyone.
Fundamentally, what a good mentor needs to give you is whatever you need. You may need nothing other than a biweekly meeting where you discuss data and solve problems together. You may need to breakdown in their office because you hate everything. You may just need the odd shove to push you out of your comfort zone. Sadly, what all these things require from the mentor is time, something which academics are often pushed for. But finding people who are willing to make time to do these things for you and with you is vital for a happy career in research. And to all those mentors out there who’ve helped me and made time, I thank you.
1 Yifang Ma, Satyam Mukherjee and Brian Uzzi. Mentorship and protégé success in STEM fields. PNAS, 2020
2 Taken from The Lonely Pipette with the permission of Renaud Poupre and Jonathan Weitzman
Dr Yvonne Couch is an Alzheimer’s Research UK Fellow at the University of Oxford. Yvonne studies the role of extracellular vesicles and their role in changing the function of the vasculature after stroke, aiming to discover why the prevalence of dementia after stroke is three times higher than the average. It is her passion for problem solving and love of science that drives her, in advancing our knowledge of disease. Yvonne has joined the team of staff bloggers at Dementia Researcher, and will be writing about her work and life as she takes a new road into independent research.