Getting Places Together: How to Find and Keep a Good Mentor

Did you know that the Biophysical Society has recently created an online mentoring network? The Mentor Board is an invaluable resource to help you find a mentor who can nurture your scientific career and provide advice on topics with which you may be inexperienced. If you are curious about mentoring or interested in being mentored, check out the answers to the questions below to find out how invaluable mentoring can be to boost your personal and professional growth.

Who needs a mentor?

You may think you need a mentor only if you’re a student or a postdoc. This is not the case. At any career stage, just about everyone needs a mentor! Depending on where you are on your scientific path, you could benefit from the input of one or more mentors. You might discuss with a mentor how to prepare for an interview; how to negotiate with a new boss or department chair; how to discuss your research with your PI; or how to prepare your CV.

Why do I need a mentor?

Science, the field of biophysics in particular, is becoming more and more interdisciplinary. Whether you are a student, a professor, or a scientist working in an industrial setting, there is always more to learn. A mentor helps you understand how to advance in your science and your career. A mentor provides advice on how to find out about a new field or how to navigate your own research area, and can help if you get stuck. Having a mentor can also help give you the self-confidence you need to become optimally integrated in your field. Imagine that you are about to interview for a job. Knowing the right questions to ask, including how to effectively negotiate a start-up package or a salary, can make you a stronger candidate.

Even though you may already have a research advisor who serves as your mentor, sometimes hearing the opinions of one or more additional mentors can be extremely valuable. A mentor can help you identify different viewpoints and sources of information so you can determine how you want to approach a problem. “A mentor made me more deeply understand what the NMR field is like,” says a graduate student from Wisconsin. “I think that having an earnest discussion with your mentor can help you in molding your views.” Akritee Shreshta, a junior undergraduate from Hamilton College, explains how a mentor can be a source of both help and inspiration. “I feel that I am able to comfortably discuss not only my professional goals but also my personal ambition with my mentors, which is crucial to having a successful career in the long run,” she says. “Also, when you build a close relationship with your mentors, you not only learn from them but also get inspired.”

What should I look for in a mentor?

A mentor can be anyone who has experience and knowledge in a particular topic and is willing to share that with you. Be alert to people around you at all stages of your professional life (conferences, meetings, courses, social gatherings). A good mentor is a good listener. Identify people around you who are genuinely interested in the things you say, or who are open-minded, optimistic, and nonjudgmental. A good mentor always keeps your interests in mind when giving you advice. Each mentoring relationship is different depending on the people involved, so talk to other people about their experiences with mentoring to get a sense of what you want and need in a mentor.

How do I find a mentor?

The easiest way to find a mentor is to explore options at your own institution. A mentor can be anyone—a professor, a friend, a colleague, a postdoc, an older student, or a supervisor. Are you just starting undergraduate or graduate school? A mentor could be your research advisor or your professor in a course. You could look for a mentor in your own research group, or in a different research group. Keep in mind that a mentor does not have to be someone in your field. If you feel that there are no good prospects for a mentor at your institution, or perhaps you want a mentor with a different academic background, you can find a mentor through online mentoring networks such as MentorNet, American Women in Science (AWIS), and the new Biophysical Society MentorBoard. These networks provide access to scientists around the world and one of them will be right for you.

Does my mentor need to look like me?

Your mentor does not need to be exactly like you to give good advice; he or she just needs to understand your situation. For example, if you are a young woman who is wondering what it would be like to have young children in your department, your best source of information may be the male assistant professor with children rather than the female scientist with no children or the older scientist with grandchildren. Although someone who has the same experiences can be a good source of advice and information, other individuals can be good resources even if they don’t look like you.

How do I approach my prospective mentor?

Remember, you want to develop a lasting relationship with your mentor, so you can start identifying people based on your interest in their work or in joining their research group. You can choose your mentor based on mutual interests in research, subject area, and/or experimental methodology. It is up to you to do the research to identify the labs and the research that are most interesting to you. To determine which people or lab might be best, talk to people in your department who may be able to help you identify programs that provide funding for research, or who may know which labs need students. Make a personal connection if you can. Consider approaching potential mentors in department gatherings, or over coffee before a seminar or after a class. Email them if you can’t find other opportunities to make personal contact.

What are my responsibilities in a mentoring relationship?

Recognize that your mentor is probably a busy person. Be respectful and realize that your mentor is taking time out of his or her schedule to meet with you. Think about what you want to say and be prepared with specific questions before meeting with your mentor. Give your mentor your full attention: don’t talk on your cell phone or text when you are speaking with him or her. You want to have a friendly relationship, so you can certainly stop by to say hello, but if you have an important or serious matter to discuss, it’s better to set up a meeting in advance. Email your mentor to let him or her know that you need to meet—they will make time for you. Most importantly, don’t forget about your mentor once the problem is solved. Follow up to let your mentor know how his or her advice panned out. Stay in contact with your mentor over time: this interaction can develop into a lasting personal relationship. Just like any friendship, keep in touch during good times as well as bad.

Silvia Cavagnero and Ishita Mukerji
  Minority Affairs Committee members

April 2012 Table of Contents