Mentoring for Scientists: I Have a Mentor, What Now?

By Joanne Kamens

This is the fifth and final post in the Addgene Blog Mentoring for Scientists Series. The entire series and additional resources can be downloaded in E-Book format at the end of this post.

Mentoring-for-ScientistsIf you have been following the posts in this Mentoring for Scientists series, you have: realized the value of having a mentor, developed some strategies for finding mentors and, perhaps, asked someone to support your career development as your mentor. How do you make the most of this new relationship? Consider adding formality and active goal setting to your mentoring relationships, so that you can reap rewards in the form of reaching career development goals.

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Add a little formality to mentoring

Just getting together and chatting with another person about their career path is a great start to a mentoring relationship, but if you don’t take this past the chatting stage you will rarely make any change in your skill sets or activate the helpful accountability that is one major advantage of working with a mentor.The responsibility of arranging meetings and setting the direction in a mentoring relationship falls on the shoulders of the Mentee. A Mentor will be more effective if the Mentee has done the self-reflection necessary to identify areas that need work or growth. Here are some ideas for making your meetings productive:

  • Discuss logistics if appropriate:  How often will you meet? How does the Mentor prefer to communicate between meetings (email, phone, etc.)?

  • Make agendas for your meetings, take informal minutes on what was covered and learned, especially noting action items that are identified.

  • Keep a journal to record topics, plans, findings, and progress over the course of an ongoing mentoring relationship (in a book or online).

  • Mentee: Make a list of topics/skills you are interested in exploring. Mentor:  Make a list of topics/skills in which you have expertise or knowledge. Where do these intersect?

  • Work with resources: Choose books or articles on pertinent topics to read before your meetings and discuss these in person. See the extensive resource list available from this post.

  • Use an activity to start a discussion. The Forced Choice Analysis is a fun example and you can find it in our Mentoring for Scientists Guide.  You can use it to clarify and discuss values. The activity is just the start – it is the discussion after that will lead to learning.

Listen to our podcast interview with Harvard Medical School researcher Connie Cepko to learn about her mentoring style.

Set goals with a mentor: The secret of accountability

To make a mentoring relationship really productive, the most important step you can take is to set goals to work on together and track progress at every meeting. It can take many mentoring meetings to hone the goals and to make them “SMART.” SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. It is a good idea to take larger goals (e.g. Figure out what I want to do after I get my PhD) and break them down into smaller, actionable steps (e.g. Meet 10 PhDs with interesting careers, find a summer internship, etc.). It is helpful to work together on setting SMART goals using a Development Plan template. A Development Plan or mentoring journal will help a Mentee track progress, adjust expectations, and record milestones in reaching goals. The more time and thought you put into setting goals, the more progress you will make in reaching them. Of course, you won’t reach all the goals you set, but the process of working on them is where growth happens.

Mentors bring more than their knowledge and teaching to help a Mentee reach goals. One of the most important contributions made by a Mentor is to help the Mentee feel a sense of accountability to complete action items and make progress. To illustrate this point, consider that I try to exercise every morning, but the temptation to skip the gym is strong. There are a few women that I see at the gym every day. If I skip, I get a bunch of text messages asking me, “What happened? Where are you?” My gym posse holds me accountable for attending and sometimes it is only the knowledge that they will be watching out for me that gets me out of bed and into my running shoes.

Be a mentor to become a better mentee

One of the best ways to become a productive Mentee is to become a Mentor yourself. If you think you have nothing to give, think again. Everyone has knowledge to impart. An undergraduate can mentor a high school student, a graduate student can mentor an undergraduate, a postdoc can mentor a graduate student – you get the idea. There are many advantages to being a Mentor:

  • Learn other perspectives

  • Develop coaching skills

  • Encourage your creative thinking

  • Enhance leadership skills

  • Support inclusion, diversity, and open communication

  • Feel valued by giving back

Final tips for success

Make mentoring meetings a priority. Schedule meetings or calls regularly and don’t cancel, so that you drive progress with regular accountability checks. Focus on implementation of your goals and respect the time your Mentor is giving by following up on plans. Make a commitment to put time and energy into your mentoring relationships. You will only reap rewards if you put in the effort.

If you you want more great advice on mentoring, click below to download the "Mentoring for Scientists" ebook, which includes the entire series of mentoring blog posts, the "Forced Choice Analysis Activity", the "Peer Mentor Groups Guide", "Tips for Choosing a Good Mentor", and more!

Check Out Angela Depace's Talk on "Precision and Plasticity in Mentoring"


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Topics: Science Careers, Mentoring for Scientists, Early Career Researcher

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