10 things scientists should know about mentoring

Towards the end of 2013, there were a number of interesting articles discussing the relationships between scientists, politicians and the public. This got us thinking. What about relationships between senior and early career researchers? 

After running the Academy's mentoring scheme over the last four years, Dr Nigel Eady shares his thoughts.

Mentoring isn’t a silver bullet that will solve all your problems

It really isn’t! It can be very useful, even inspiring and life-giving, but don’t dump the responsibility of sorting out the thorny issues you’ve been struggling with for a decade on the mentor you’ve only just met.

Don’t wait until you hit a crisis to look for a mentor – get to know each other beforehand

How much time are you investing in planning your future career? Don’t leave it all down to serendipity! A trusted mentor can be invaluable in a crisis, but if your first few meetings with a new mentor are spent fire-fighting, as well as trying to understand each other and work out effective ways of working together, you’re unlikely to be getting the best value from your mentor.

The best mentor-mentee relationships tend to develop when there’s some sort of ‘chemistry’ in the relationship

How well matched are you with your mentor? Do you share similar values? Is there enough positive feeling between you that you want to plan the next meeting? If you’re not well matched, you’d probably be better to agree to call it a day and look for someone else. If you’re part of a formal mentoring scheme, the coordinator should be able to help you with that, even if it feels an uncomfortable process to go through.

Be clear with your mentor about the purpose and parameters of your mentoring relationship

Set out and agree clear expectations at the start of the mentoring relationship. There’s nothing worse than expecting your mentor to reply to an urgent email only to find out that they really don’t respond very quickly to emails! Maybe they’d prefer to have a short telephone conversation if it’s urgent? And how much time are they able and willing to commit to you? The mentoring gurus call this process ‘contracting’. These factors should be discussed in your first meeting with your mentor. But if you’ve not yet done that, it’s not too late...

The mentee needs to drive the mentoring relationship

So take responsibility for organising the meetings – date, time and venue. If your mentor is (much) more senior than you, however committed to you they may be, being realistic, you may not be at the very top of their priority list. Get to know their PA, if they have one!

A good mentor helps you develop your problem-solving skills and doesn’t just give you advice

Good advice is really valuable, but how your mentor handled the problem you’re facing may not be the best approach for you. The very best mentors will give advice, from time to time, but they will spend much more time asking good questions and helping you to think through the problem. Sometimes that will mean brainstorming possible approaches, people to talk to, organisations to contact. Sometimes the issue might be you! How willing are you to do what you need to do? Do you really want to solve the situation? Now?

Learn to give and receive feedback from your mentor

Constructive feedback is a vital part of mentoring. How can your mentor know they aren’t being much help if you don’t tell them! Hopefully your mentor will ask for, and respond to, feedback as the relationship progresses. You might even give them feedback regardless! Is their questioning style effective for you? Are the meetings frequent enough? Are they just telling you what they would do in your situation, rather than helping you find the approach that works for you?

Mentoring should be a two-way relationship with mentor and mentee both learning

Many of our mentors are passionate about ensuring research training pathways are fit for purpose. Often they are also the sorts of people who can affect change. Our mentors often comment that they get a huge amount from being a mentor. Not only is it enjoyable, but they understand the challenges and concerns of their younger colleagues much better and therefore have a clearer understanding of the training and support needs of early career researchers.

Draw on formal and informal mentors if you can

Different mentors will have different skills and experiences. One early career researcher I know has about five mentors! He takes different problems to different people. One mentor is a gifted ‘politician’ and can help unpick the most troublesome vested interests, while another knows just how to provide support on more personal issues.

Build a wide support network of people at all career stages

This is especially important if you don’t currently have a mentor. Spend time nurturing your professional relationships - you never know when a contact you’ve made may prove useful. If you become known as someone who’s helpful, whether pointing people to useful information or to other contacts, you’ll soon find your network expands. Growing your network may require you to invest some time but it is worth it! In time you’ll be able to draw on a broad range of perspectives, giving you many more options when you hit a problem.

What do you think? The Academy’s mentoring team would love to hear your thoughts: mentoring@acmedsci.ac.uk

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