The good mentorship guide
Sarah Bohndiek describes some of the key traits postdocs should look for in a potential mentor and offers advice on selecting the right mentor for you.
By the end of your PhD, you will have acquired an extensive range of technical skills and experience in scientific communication. You will likely know how to navigate the politics of working as a team and be able to critically evaluate scientific papers. You will also rank among the world's experts in your particular sub-field. In other words, you will have become an established scientist.
However, if you decide to go on and do postdoctoral research, you will quickly discover that you still have a lot more to learn. Becoming a group leader involves developing your own research programme; managing and mentoring others; successfully writing and administering grants; implementing good safety practices; and adopting successful time and project management strategies. None of these things are generally included in a PhD course. And regardless of whether your goal is to stay in academia or, in the longer term, move on to something else, these skills will serve you well. So how should you go about developing them during your time as a postdoc?
As I begin the transition from postdoctoral fellow to university lecturer, the one thing I know for certain is that I would not be where I am today without the commitment, guidance and advice of my former and current mentors. All of them have contributed to my success as a physicist, and the lessons they taught me about mentoring were some of the most important of all. I will try to summarize these lessons here by laying out what I believe are key trademarks of a good mentor and mentee; how postdocs should evaluate a potential mentor; and how to maintain long-term mentoring relationships.
What to look for
The mentor-mentee relationship is a two-way street, so we need to consider the relationship from both sides. First, if you are applying for a postdoc position, what are the most important attributes to look for in a potential mentor? For me, one of the greatest things a mentor can give to a developing researcher is inspiration. The ideal mentor is someone who is so passionate about science that you can go into their office with your head down and a project that seems to be going nowhere, and leave with a smile and renewed confidence that it will work out.
Another key feature is generosity. This comes in two forms. The first is generosity with ideas: you want to find a group leader who is generous with their own scientific knowledge while also encouraging independence and creativity. But generosity with time is also important. A good mentor is someone who is always there for you when you need them – someone who makes time for regular one-to-one conversations despite busy schedules, and who provides support by phone or e-mail if they are not there in person.
Empathy and selflessness also rank highly in my list of desirable traits. A good mentor will treat postdocs with respect and will not regard them as just a "pair of hands". They will celebrate your successes and take time to help you analyse and learn from your failures, while also keeping them in perspective. And of course, they will give you credit for your ideas in public and help you expand your network of contacts – both of which will help your future career prospects and promote your standing in the scientific community.
In return for these things, a good postdoctoral mentee will bring a number of important attributes to the mentoring relationship. One of these is foresight. All of us have slightly different needs, so you should not expect your mentor to know automatically what you want or need from the relationship. It is your responsibility to think carefully about these and ask for them specifically.
Similarly, if you are bringing a problem to your mentor, make sure you are proactive enough to consider possible solutions beforehand. Don't expect to be "spoon-fed" answers, and make it clear that you value your mentor's time by making (and keeping!) appointments and staying focused on the important points that need to be addressed. Finally, a good mentee should be able to strike a balance between ambition and humility. For example, that might mean setting goals with your mentor that they can help you achieve (whether scientific or career-driven), but also being willing to accept constructive criticism (see March pp69–70).
Interviewing the interviewers
The obvious follow-up question is how you, as an aspiring postdoc, can determine whether a potential mentor meets these criteria. The most important advice I can offer here is to interview them! It is likely that you will visit your prospective group, so while you are there, you should talk to other members. Find out about their experiences with the group leader and be sure to ask them tough questions about how new ideas are discussed within the group and what networking opportunities they have been given. If the mentor is a high-profile researcher, you should also ask how often they are available to their group. Passion is a bit harder to judge, but impassioned mentors are often excellent and inspirational teachers and great communicators to diverse audiences. Try to find out if your potential mentor fits into this category.
Finally, remember that it is rare to find all of the attributes I have identified in one individual. After all, academics are chosen on the basis of their research success, rather than their ability as leaders or mentors, and they often receive little or no training in the latter roles.
If your group leader lacks one or more of the attributes described above, do not be afraid to look to others in your department or even collaborators at other universities to serve as mentors as well. Foster relationships with people you identify as potential mentors and ask them if they would be willing to provide additional guidance in a particular area.
Do not be disheartened if they say "no", as they may simply have too many mentees and feel that they cannot provide you with sufficient attention. Keep looking! Peer mentors in your research group can also be an excellent source of support, especially if you are changing fields of research. Ask a fellow postdoc to mentor you as you learn a new technique or software tool.
A good mentor will be instrumental in your future success long after you have left their group, so once you have established a strong relationship that works well, treasure it. Work hard to keep past mentors up to date with your progress; for example, by sending an annual e-mail report if you are not in regular contact. Also, be sure to watch the progress of their research. Great mentors will help to build your career as you move from junior mentee to established independent researcher and potential collaborator. Their advice will be invaluable. Keep in mind that a strong postdoctoral mentor can be the difference between success and failure in an academic career. Take your time, interview them as they interview you, and choose wisely.
Sarah Bohndiek is currently a postdoctoral fellow in molecular imaging at Stanford University. In October she will take up a position as a lecturer in biological and biomedical physics at the University of Cambridge, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared in the April 2013 issue of Physics World.