The importance of mentorship: how to make the most of who you know

Right after handing in my doctoral thesis I had the great opportunity to intern with Cancer Research UK, which is one of the most active science funding bodies in Europe and one of the most interesting places to work that I have ever come across. As somebody who went straight from college to graduate school, this was my first time experiencing corporate culture (and a dress code!). One of the aspects of traditional office life that stuck with me the most was the emphasis that the organization put on mentorship – as a formal and well-defined activity that can benefit both the mentor and the mentee. Upon getting back into the rather disorganized world of academia, I really felt I could take the principles I learned during my internship and apply them to the academic way of life.


What is a mentor?

The idea behind a mentor figure is somebody who is senior to you, but is not directly involved in your line of management and who is able to provide guidance on how to develop your career and your professional skills. For example, a good mentor for a postdoc could be a PI from a different lab, or ideally from a different department. This is in sharp contrast to the academic definition of mentorship, which basically substitutes the word “mentor” for the word “boss.” However, no matter how talented he or she is, your boss is not necessarily in the best position to give you unbiased career advice and guidance. For instance, bosses need to retain at least most of their staff to run a successful operation, be it a lab or an office. Because the advice is coming from someone who directly benefits from your work, s/he will rarely advise you to switch positions or take new risks.


As an academic how do I find a mentor?

Not all workplaces have clearly defined mentorship programs for their most junior staff. Academia, in particular, is relatively lacking in clearly signposted opportunities to look for mentorship. However, more and more graduate schools and departments across the world are implementing mentorship schemes aimed at PhD students and postdocs and putting them in touch with staff scientists and faculty members. Nevertheless, while these opportunities are not always available, academia is rich with less formal opportunities to form mentorship relationships. First of all, it might be worth looking all around you. Do you work with faculty members who are not directly your boss, perhaps as collaborators on a project or as members of neighboring labs? These might be great people with whom to build relationships. Conferences are another great place to look for mentorship. Networking sessions offer you the chance to get to know new people from different institutions altogether, who are ideally placed to give you unbiased professional ideas.


Making informal mentorship work

Of course, while a mentor you might meet through an ad-hoc program will know exactly what you are expecting out of the relationship and is presumably willing to help you, this is not necessarily true for your “informal mentors.. In fact, most informal mentor-mentee relationships look most like friendly acquaintances. This can make it awkward to open up to your makeshift mentor and can make it difficult to ask for advice. The simplest way to tackle the problem is to be extremely direct. If you are looking for advice at a specific juncture in your career, just come out and say it. People in senior roles give out advice all the time and will most likely be thrilled to help you. After all, asking someone for their opinion is rather flattering to them. At the same time, bear in mind that it might be better to approach informal mentors with a specific problem as opposed to a generic wish to improve yourself professionally. Since the time you have at your disposal is probably quite limited, you are going to have to do some of the work ahead of time. Zero in on the crux of the issue – are you looking to improve a particular skill but you don’t know how to tackle it? Are you planning your next career move? Are you eyeing up a specific job and are looking for the skills necessary to obtain it? Asking the right questions is almost as important as getting the right answers. If you do manage to establish a successful mentoring relationship it is important to maintain it as your career develops. While of course you are going to need different amounts of support at different times in your life, it is important to maintain these relationships over time. Checking in once every few months is a great way to keep the lines of communication open with your mentor and to show that you truly appreciate your relationship with them and not only their advice. As you maintain your mentor-mentee rapport over the months and years, you will find it will evolve as your positions both change.


With a little help from your friends…

Finally, if all else fails and you are still in desperate (or mild!) need of guidance, peer mentorship will always be there for you. One of the most wonderful things about being a scientist is the great camaraderie that develops among fellow scientists. If nothing else, your fellow grad students (or postdocs) will understand what you’re going through. Of course, it might be worth being selective about which peers you go to for serious career advice. Find somebody whose opinion you trust, bearing in mind that they might not necessarily be your best friend.


Lastly, how about you? How do you approach mentorship as an academic? Who do you go to for advice? And why? Let us know! If you are interested to find out more, you can look into this tweetchat and this mentoring symposium.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

About the Author:

Gaia obtained her PhD from King's College, London working on melanoma cell plasticity and how it affects metastasis and patient survival. She has since moved to the United States, where she is currently a lecturing fellow at Duke University. Her work focuses on understanding how breast cancer metastasizes to the bone and manipulates the tumor micro-environment. She loves writing about science and communicating her passion for all things biology. You can find more of her writing here: