Hey there and welcome to a new YSSC newsletter article! Today we will touch on a topic whose importance is often neglected and underestimated in a scientific career path. You have probably been told to network, but has anyone asked you about your mentorship team yet?
Just as the concept of “team science” is becoming more crucial than ever to foster breakthroughs in science, individuals will have greater success with a mentorship team supporting different aspects of their professional and personal lives . If you are a student or postdoc who expects your primary investigator (PI) to teach you all the tools for success in your career, you will be limited by the experiences of that mentor. This becomes a glaring problem if you are thinking of making a jump from academia to another career path, or if you have other personal struggles they cannot identify with.
Who are the players?
Mentorship is a developmental relationship between a more experienced person (mentor) and a less experienced person (mentee), where the mentor provides support, guidance, and/or encouragement with the aim of enhancing the mentee’s personal and professional development .
There are probably already several people on your mentorship team. You should expect a certain level of support from your PI because they are the director of the lab. They may coach you through how to analyze data, generate new hypotheses, present at conferences, write manuscripts, etc. Hopefully, they have given you a clear indication that they are also interested in your career progress. Perhaps you have additional mentors in your lab such as a postdoc or technician that has taught you technical skills. Even our peers can be our mentors by lending support when they have had success or failure with particular techniques, applications, experiences, navigating departmental politics, etc.
What positions still need to be filled?
At the center of your mentorship team is you. If you are unclear about where you want to be in your career in 5 -10 years, take some time to reflect using an Individual Development Plan (IDP). There are plenty of free templates online, but the one provided by AAAS Science Careers is particularly noteworthy because it provides a structured self-assessment, it will send goal reminders periodically to your email, and it provides literature on different career paths that match your strengths and interests.
Perhaps you need a mentor whose work-life balance you admire. Maybe you are interested in a different field or traveling to another country in the next step of your career. Where do you want to be next year? Where do you want to be in five years? Seek out mentors who are there currently in that stage to discuss whether or not your plans will allow you to reach these goals. Take advantage of conferences, particularly smaller ones where there is an expectation to network. Schools and local symposia can also be a starting point.
How do I fill my team’s bench?
The most important skill in finding mentors is to be proactive. You should know what you want to get out of a mentorship relationship in order to initiate a conversation without wasting someone’s time. The initial ask should be about something specific, and the word “mentor” itself should be avoided.
What does a specific ask look like for someone you do not know?
- Be direct and succinct.
“Dr. X, I have a lot of respect for your work in neurodegeneration and genetics. If you have 30 minutes for coffee or lunch, I would like to hear more about your career story and how you manage to contribute to both academia and industry.”
- Show that you respect the individual’s time.
“I understand you are very busy. If 30 minutes is not possible, perhaps a 15-minute phone conversation is more manageable. Please let me know a date and time that works best with your schedule.”
If you do not hear back right away, give 2-3 weeks before following up. If there is still no response, look for someone else to fill this spot on your bench. After the initial meeting, it is very important to be consistent in your continued communication, whether that is weekly, monthly, or every 3-4 months. Send them articles you think would be of interest to maintain contact and send updates about what aspects of their advice you have taken to show you are invested in continuing the relationship. Don’t be afraid to ask for things if you are going to use them. If the mentor has agreed to show up, they want you to make the most out of the council that they put energy and time into.
Finally, if you are having a difficult time initiating a relationship, there are also resources such as the National Research Mentoring Network that provide a space for connecting with mentors who have already indicated their willingness to help guide mentees. Just remember a “No” to your request is just a response to a valuable effort you made, an experience for you and something you can deal with and move on to the next person. Most likely, a “No” will be a sincere response from someone who would not currently have sufficient time to devote to your development. It will likely be more productive to find someone that can offer you timely feedback. Not making the effort of asking, well… that loss is on you.
Good luck in building your team!
 Gotian, R, 2019. Why you need a support team. Nature. Apr;568(7752):425-426. doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00992-3.
 Hokanson, SC, Goldberg, BB, 2018. Chapter 5 – Proactive Postdoc Mentoring. Editor(s): Audrey Jaeger, Alessandra J. Dinin, The Postdoc Landscape. Academic Press, Pages 91-120, ISBN 9780128131695, https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-813169-5.00005-7.