Saturday, August 18, 2012

Mentors and Mentoring

Much has been said about the importance of mentors helping trainees navigate their career, provide opportunities and offer guidance and encouragement. Ideally this person is an adviser, someone more senior with both experience and influence. Perhaps they even help us see ourselves in a way that we can't, by recognizing our latent talents, strengths and interests. But most of us don't navigate our careers with the fairy godmother of mentors looking out for us, I think it is much more common for us to cobble together the role of the perfect mentor from the offerings of people around us. 

Fortunately, I had some experience with this earlier in my career.  My graduate project was in a field (virology) that is only tangentially related to my adviser's core interests (yeast genetics and quality control). We worked closely with a collaborator who is a world class virologist, and I often thought of him as my scientific adviser.  My graduate adviser would help me design experiments in terms of "this is how we will show this figure, we need these controls..." and my scientific adviser would help me get those experiments to work. So I am open to the idea that often there isn't one person who has all the answers.

As I started thinking about my career in graduate school, it became pretty clear that while both of my advisers wanted me to succeed, the only path to success they knew was their own.  Since I don't want to be a R1 faculty member, I didn't get a lot of specific career advice from either of them. Still, it was nice to know that when I was writing applications for policy fellowships or getting phone interviews with state agencies, they were pleased. After my defense, I left the bench prepared to do this battle on my own.  It surprised me a little that these guys (or any faculty at Pitt) weren't more involved at this point, but I felt prepared to be independent.  When I moved to Washington, I found it easy to find and meet people who were willing to share what they know about the job scene here and how it should be navigated.  Again, no one ever had all the answers, so it seemed important to get wide perspectives.

A fellow AWIS board member sent me this link recently, to the Science Mentor blog, which is full of great tips for figuring our how to find your own (internal) resources to navigate your career.  It breaks my heart a little to think that Self-Mentoring might become en vogue (are so few people willing to help each other?  Do we really think we are an island unto ourselves?), but if the people serving as your mentors have gaps in their ability to help you, sometimes it is easier to fill those yourself.

And yet, there have been a couple times when I have had a fairly objective question about where I stand in my career that I need some external, engaged but disinterested party to help me answer.  Is it a bad idea to take a job as a tech? Should I leave my unpaid internship for a paid internship? Or the very common, is this cover letter ok?  Without a real community here, it has been a challenge to answer some of these on my own.  Fortunately, my colleagues at AWIS have served as great ad hoc mentors, because they have local knowledge and a variety of experience.  I have been really pleased with how valuable getting involved with this group has turned out for me. 

I still think I need more help. When I consider what my barriers to finding a real career are, I think lack of focus and indecision have really held me back. And although I know this, I don't know how to overcome it. Sure, everyone wants the fairy godmother scientist to make their dreams come true.  At this point I would settle for any type of enduring support.  This is why I've signed up to join the Seattle AWIS mentoring program next year.  It should be a good opportunity to build my professional community and spend some time thinking about my professional goals.


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  2. Thanks for highlighting my blog in your post! It reinforces that I am not alone in the pursuit of finding that "magical" science career (a fairy godmother scientist would be so cool!) However, I want to point out that "self-mentoring", as I view it, is not a solitary pursuit. Rather, self-mentoring is a realization that one has control over their own professional development and an individual responsibility to seek out honest, supportive relationships for building a network of mentors. Personally, I think it is important for scientists to align their passions with their talents to find a rewarding career, which can only be determined by the individual but aided by talking to as many people as possible. Thus, I hope my blog can serve as a guide in helping others learn professional development techniques, including effective networking skills.

    Please share how the mentoring program works for you, as I know I would be very interested in hearing about the experience. Best wishes with your future endeavors!

  3. Thanks Donna! You raise a good point, it took me a long time to realize that in professional settings most people don't prioritize my best interests above their own, and that's ok. It's important to have the tools to recognize and deal with that, which I think your blog will do wonderfully at address. I look forward to following along. And yes, I'll let you know how the AWIS mentoring program works out.