How your mentor affects your succes in academia

This is a post that has been in my head for ages, but I want to write it in an objective way, not in a whiny way. And I think I'm ready for that now. I can basically summarize this post in one sentence: the time, energy and investment your academic mentor has for you is a large determinant for your career-success, but is extremely hard to predict when starting a project.

Let me explain myself more, starting with the first part of that sentence. Sure, there are different mentoring styles, but in the end it is important that your mentor has your best interest in mind. And I have found that this is not always the case, because a mentor is usually a busy person, and somebody with their own interests when it comes to project ownership, collaborations, etc. However, I have also seen mentor who - despite being extremely busy with things that matter to them - invest lots of time to get their trainees to write the best papers, come up with the best ideas, find their own niches and write the best possible grant applications. And from what I see around me, having a mentor like that can be just that extra important thing that you need to succeed in a highly competitive environment.

The next part of the sentence is the thing that you can influence yourself, which is to find exactly that mentor as a post-doc. But how do you do that? How do you know if a PI will be that mentor, and more importantly, whether they will be that mentor TO YOU? Because as much as people might not want to admit this, there has to be some sort of click/chemistry/connection/whatever you want to call it to make your mentor do all those things for you. Some ways to figure this out are: 1) Talk to people in the lab and see where lab-alumni have ended up. Are they allowed to take projects from the lab for themselves? 2) See where in their career your potential mentor is: will they have to work their ass off to get things for themselves in the coming years? Although this may be different for different PIs, because this may also mean that they will invest time in their trainees in order to get those papers they need for themselves. As I said before, this can be a delicate balance. 3) Try to figure out if this is somebody you will be able to work with well. This might be the hardest part, especially because a PI may be different on your interview day than on the average day in the lab. And you might be different when you've just got your PhD versus when you're a 4th year post-doc looking for a job. Just like in a relationship with a loved one, the hardest part is to grow together and still be able to benefit from this mentor/mentee relationship.

And to end with: in this post I've used mentor and PI sort of interchangeably, but in real life a mentor can be a different person from your PI. It's nice if your PI is your mentor but if push comes to shove, you're responsible to look for people that can give input and challenge you to move forward in your career. This can - and perhaps should be - more than one person.

4 responses so far

  • DJMH says:

    Every time new grad students would ask me my advice on what lab to join, I'd tell them that having a supportive, good advisor you get along with was more important than having a bigshot with channel-nano-opsin-femto-lasers and the coolest ideas.

    But c-n-o-f-ls are bright and shiny, and many students can't ignore their lure.

  • iGrrrl says:

    Your last sentence is important. The business literature has the best work on personnel development, and part of that is good data on mentoring and outcomes. Those with a network of mentors do better, especially people from underrepresented groups (women and minorities).

    And to really succeed you need a sponsor who is already at the top of their field. Sheryl Sandberg had Larry Summers, among others, who promoted her both within organizations they controlled and, importantly in academia, to their peers and colleagues.

    But if you don't have that kind of sponsor, a network of mentors could have a cumulative additive effect, both in breadth of input, and in number people willing to go to bat for you.

    • babyattachmode says:

      Thanks for your comment! I didnt know sponsor was the word but yeah someone who will do that for you seems critical in a competitive environment. And very hard to find.

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