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Academic Careers ,

Optimizing Your Mentored Experience

In recent days, sports writers and broadcasters have focused on the death of former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.  Wooden’s impressive record of 10 NCAA championships in 12 years and 88-game winning streak by the Bruins received much attention.  However, the emphasis from his former players was “…how he taught us about life….he had the perspective of what was really important, and he always reinforced what he said by what he did,” as Andy Hill says, quoted in the June 7 NY Times.  In other words, his players insisted he was more than a coach – he was a mentor. 

Lorraine Stomski, an expert in leadership education and coaching, explains, “People often confuse coaching with mentoring.  Coaching, which provides specific feedback, can be used within mentoring.  But mentoring is more holistic than coaching, in that it develops the whole individual – through guidance, coaching and development opportunities” (June 6 NY Times).

This was of particular interest to me because I was recently asked to give a talk to medical students on the topic, “Optimizing Your Mentored Experience.”  In preparation for my talk, I spent a weekend perusing material in print and online.  My initial impression was that everything that can be said has been said and is readily available, so the best one can do is to summarize succinctly and emphasize a few key points from the mind-numbing expanse of material.  But reflecting on my more than 50 years experience being a mentor and mentee (protégé is now the preferred term), I want to share my perspective and first hand observations.


To optimize your mentored experience, the following considerations are paramount:

Self-knowledge.
The first and, in many ways, most critical step is serious
introspection. You need to find at least tentative answers to the
following questions: Why are you in medical or graduate school?  What
are your career goals – in 5 years, 10 years?  On the basis of your
research experience to date, which line of research are you most
enthusiastic about?  What environment best suits your style of learning
and work?  Once you have a clear concept of where you want to go, you
will be in a position to map out your route and mentoring requirements.

What mentoring is
.  A mentor provides the combined benefits of a teacher, adviser, career advocate, role model, and friend.  As a teacher,
he or she provides insight and solutions for basic and complex research
problems, going beyond teaching you facts and techniques.  As an adviser,
the mentor works with you to develop significant hypotheses and design
controlled experiments that will form the basis of your research
program.  As an advocate for your career development, your mentor
assists you in: developing independent research; writing, publishing,
and reviewing scientific papers; finding opportunities to present your
work in meetings and societies locally, nationally, and internationally;
acquiring grant writing experience; learning about the give and take of
university and scientific organizational politics and in the art of
networking. A mentor also serves as a role model, showing you how
to be an effective scientist of good character, maturity, enthusiasm,
and depth.  Finally, a mentor should offer you help and consideration
that goes beyond the classroom and laboratory with the potential to
ripen into friendship.  

What a good mentor is
Desirable traits and attributes of a good mentor are patience and the
ability to inspire, an impressive record of productivity and publication
in top journals, strong long-term financial support, strong skills in
teaching and managing people, and a laboratory in which trainees are
happy and enthusiastic.  

It is helpful to know why a senior
scientist is willing to expend time and energy on mentoring.  A good
mentor is anxious to gain insights into a new generation of
up-and-coming scientists and to help shape the future of their
discipline with his or her trainees.  Senior scientists take pride in
their legacy and find mentoring very rewarding.  

Different
trainees — including you — require different things from a mentor. 
Once you have determined what you want to achieve through the mentoring
association and relationship, the mentor who can provide those things is
a “good mentor” for you.  

How do you identify your ideal mentor
First of all, you must choose a mentor in an area of research for which
you have genuine enthusiasm.  The size of the laboratory and the
seniority of the lab director and his or her administrative
responsibilities will determine whether you work side by side with your
mentor or look to more senior trainees for day to day guidance.  You
need to know in which circumstance you will be most comfortable.  Check
into the grant funding on your university or the NIH web site and
inquire directly about other funding and the availability  of
resources.  Examine the laboratory’s publication record and the quality
of the journals they publish in.  Keep personality issues in mind and
make certain you can communicate freely with your mentor and others in
the lab.  Evaluate carefully the opinions of other students in the
laboratory.  Consider whether the issues they bring up – both positive
and negative – are compatible with your needs and desires.

What are your responsibilities in making your mentored experience a success?  When laboratory directors are polled on what they most want from the trainees they mentor, the answer is usually the same:  commitment
If you do not feel a strong sense of commitment, something is wrong,
and you need to discuss it with your mentor and make the necessary
changes in your project, the lab you are working in, even your career
direction.

At the outset, make sure you have a well-defined
project that fits the interests and capabilities of yourself and your
mentor.  Pick a research project that will be of interest whether the
results are positive or negative.  Make sure the project can be
completed in the time you have allotted for it.  Establish with your
mentor milestones for progress and make provisions for modifying the
project as needed.  

You share with your mentor the
responsibility for maintaining good communication.  Establish regular
weekly meeting times.  Do not hesitate to ask questions, whether they
are about fundamental concepts and ideas or minor technical details. 
Have a clear idea of how well your mentor thinks the project is going. 
Listen to your mentor, and make sure he or she listens to you.  Work to
be an integral part of your lab group and participate in the social life
of the lab.  Keep your sense of humor, be an enjoyable colleague to
work with, and express gratitude for the help and attention you receive.

A
key final point is made by Michael Weber on the University of Virginia
Medical School Web site. In choosing a mentor, “you should not lose
sight of the fact that the most important determinant of your success
will be your own hard work, technical skill, good judgment and
creativity.  No mentor can give these to you — the best a mentor can do
is create an environment where you can achieve at your highest level.”  

The
word “mentor,” and the traditional concept of an individual combining
the attributes of teacher, role-model, and friend comes from Greek
mythology via an admirable old man named “Mentor.”  He was a friend of
Ulysses and was placed in charge of Ulysses’ son when Ulysses left for
the Trojan War. 

In the centuries since, the role of mentor has
evolved according to the requirements of cultures, societies, and
demands of the various professions.  Today, the selection of a mentor
and a successful relationship with that person is a critical component
of a graduate career.  Therefore, it is important to remember that
optimal mentoring depends on the following considerations:  

•    Self-knowledge of your professional interests, ambitions, and goals
•    A clear concept of what mentoring is – and is not – and what your needs for mentoring are
•    Selection and recruitment of the mentor most qualified to fill your mentoring needs
•    Understanding and agreement on the mutual and complementary roles you and your mentor will play in this relationship