In the last few posts, I’ve described my PhD as a quagmire of despair. Although this was a testing experience, it also provided me with the time and flexibility to forge my own professional relationships.
During my PhD, I was not being formally supervised. By necessity, I had to go and collect my own group of people who could help. As a result, I ended up setting up my own network of colleagues and collaborators. Some of these were very useful relationships that served a particular purpose, at a particular point in time. Others have endured over several years. I had the opportunity throughout my PhD to spend two 3-month blocks at an overseas research institution. This coincided with the breakdown of my relationship with my supervisor, as well as a period of time where I was gaining confidence in pursuing my own ideas. I was lucky to land in a small but supportive and scientifically cutting-edge group. As a result, I gained two mentors.
A mentor is a hard thing to pin down. In my experience, having a good mentor is simply having a relationship with someone who can help you. This can be anything from navigating work-life balance, planning your career strategy, building up key professional skills or anything else that helps you move towards your goals. I’ve had several people who I’d put in the ‘mentor’ pigeonhole. These have been both short-term and enduring relationships. Some have been as gentle as someone willing to buy me a coffee and throw in some timely kind words during a rough patch. Others have been eagle-eyed protectors who have kept close eyes on job opportunities, been generous offering authorship and data sharing, and written (I assume) glowing references.
I have found this type of relationship with other academics to be enriching and useful. Here’s some thoughts about mentoring and how to claim one, or mores.
When I turned up to my first day visiting an overseas research institution on an extended visit, I was terrified. I was about a year into my PhD candidature, and had somehow won funding for a three-month overseas visit. I travelled from Canberra to New York, leaving in the wintery depths of frost and fog, and landed in the height of New York’s summer. That first day I needed to catch the subway. Passengers in front of me nonchalantly disembarked by stepping over a white business shirt, discarded in a pool of fresh, red blood. Horrified, I turned up at work that morning and was widely mistaken for a high school student intern.
I was daunted by a new workplace and brilliant new minds. I knew nothing, I made mistake after mistake. But as the long and sweaty New York days passed by and crisp autumn mornings arrived, I had collected an enviable dataset and shown that I was not actually a visiting high school intern. I certainly made a lot of mistakes and I said a lot of stupid things. Nonetheless, I was determined to make the most of the opportunity. During my visit, I was mentored by two unrivalled scientists, who were kind and critical in equal measure. They pushed me to think, to try and to defend my ideas. We still write papers together, catch up now and then and talk about data.
It turns out that everyone is scared. If you let this stop you from pursuing help and guidance, you will miss out on incalculable opportunities. Be bold! Have a go! Sometimes you have to think about what you would do if you weren’t scared, and just do that anyway.
Don’t be monogamous
I established a couple of mentor-type relationships during these overseas visits, but that didn’t stop me looking for even more mentor-love back at home. Mentors are like the professional version of a romantic partner – just as you needs friends and family as well as a girlfriend or boyfriend, one mentor can’t meet all your needs.
I developed valuable relationships during these extended research stays and these mentors showed me a way of undertaking science science – rigorously and passionately – that I very much admired and wanted to emulate. Back home and jumping into a new postdoc position, I developed a more casual mentor-type relationship with a successful mid-career researcher in my department. I looked up to his way of practising academia. He had a strong track record of research, but more importantly, he was an all round top bloke. He had a young family and was an involved and loving father. He was a generous and fair group leader. He pushed his students, but was a dedicated supervisor. During my postdoc, I looked up to Tim*, seeking him out to ask questions. I saw him as a mentor, but I’m not sure he would even be aware of his “soft” mentoring of me.
I also wrote earlier of my supervisor John*, who provided me with a very different type of mentoring. I’m sure some would disagree that a supervisor can be a mentor. However, John provided me with an important supportive relationship. Over several years, he encouraged me and demanded of me independence and self-confidence. He also looked out for development opportunities and taught me to thinking more strategically.
A mentoring relationship is only useful if you actively participate in the relationship. A mentor-mentee relationship can’t be picked up off a set of guidelines and wholesale applied to two people. It’s a unique relationship that’s built up, and is dependent on both parties being responsive. The mentor must listen and respond to the mentee’s needs. At the same time, the mentee must be active and respond, though not uncritically, to the mentor’s guidance and advice. Neither party can sit back and expect a mutually supportive and respectful relationship to materialise from nowhere.
I’ve mentioned that a mentoring relationship is mutually beneficial. That is, the relationship is useful and supportive on both sides. It’s not usually as simple as a one person doling out the advice and the other taking notes. Any relationship is a complex mix of helping and being helped, inspiring and being inspired. Mentoring should also work both ways.
I also mentioned that Tim* was my blissfully unaware mentor. It’s good a good idea to keep in mind that you don’t know who you are influencing. I was thrust into a supervisory role not long after I finished my own PhD. I felt like an abject fraud. But at the same time, I’m sure that some undergrad or Honours student thought I was doing a pretty good job and that they could learn something from me. You never know who looks up to you or who considers you a mentor, so be a little sensitive. Even if you feel like a fraud, don’t go around make loose statements about being terrible at work, and reign in the self-deprecating jokes about being useless. If there is any young superstar-scientist-in-the-making around, you’ll make them feel pretty low with your misplaced jokes.
* No real names in use.