Mentoring Advice for Postdoctoral Fellows: A Practical Guide

Mentoring Advice for Postdoctoral Fellows: A Practical Guide

In Greek legend, before Ulysses embarked on the Trojan War, he left his young son Telemachus in the charge of a wise old man named Mentor. Under Mentor’s guidance, Telemachus became skilled in archery, wrestling and hunting. The twist to this tale is that Mentor was actually the Greek goddess Athena, in disguise. So the point of this story is to look beyond the stereotype of white haired old man for mentorship. Your mentor may take the form of Greek goddess!

In Greek mythology, Mentor was actually the goddess Athena in disguise

Recently, the Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association in Baltimore, USA held a session on “How to have a productive meeting with your Mentor/Mentee” that featured postdoctoral researcher Jenifer Calvo (JC) and professor Rajini Rao (RR). Moderated by postdoctoral researcher Irina Duff, the Q & A session covered best practices and proposals for better mentoring of postdoctoral fellows. Their discussion follows, together with excerpts from Rao’s annual lecture on Mentoring from the Johns Hopkins Responsible Conduct of Research course.

What are the signs of a good mentor? How to recognize them before reaching out to them?

JC: For me, a good mentor is one who would not only guide my growth as a scientist but also help and support me in reaching my career goals. I don’t think this is something you can easily determine from their publications or website, so you really need to talk to them and to their lab members. You need to discuss their mentoring style and expectations and see if these match your needs and personality.
RR: A good mentor will listen, be attentive, give specific advice, criticize constructively, and provide encouragement. A good mentor must also be accessible and make time for their mentee. If they are always too busy to meet with you, then find someone else. Look for a mentor who models a shared life experience or specific career that matches your aspirations. Ultimately, a good mentor must care about the mentee. They must want to do this job!

“A mentor is someone whose hindsight can become your foresight”

What is the best way to find a potential mentor?

RR: This depends on career stage. Predoctoral students have structured access to mentors, through thesis committees, laboratory advisors and teachers. Early career faculty are often assigned mentoring committees and have department chairs who are invested in their success and will advise them on career development. Unfortunately, postdoctoral fellows fall in between and often lack access to mentors, especially outside their lab. We can change this.

How to find a good mentor. Photo courtesy of National Cancer Institute

How frequently do you meet? Do you meet regularly (for example, every week) or per the mentee’s request? How do you prepare for these meetings?

JC: I meet with my PI (Principal Investigator) every week, at a fixed day and time. The day before, I send them a weekly report, which includes a summary of the previous meeting, updates, other issues that needs to be discussed, and plans for the following week. This gives me a chance to organize my results and plan for the meeting, while it allows my PI to prepare by giving them time to look at my data and think about any issues. This is also a good way to make sure I am on track and goals are being met.
RR: I individualize the frequency of meetings depending on the mentee’s needs and career stage, so that there continues to be growth and development in our discussions. I prepare for the meeting by reviewing any notes from prior meetings and going over their research plans. If the mentee is not a trainee in my lab, I may ask for an updated CV to review their career trajectory.

Do you set a mentorship plan with goals and milestones to be accomplished every month/year and follow it, or is it more on a question/answer basis?

JC: When I started, my PI and I discussed not only my project goals but my professional goals as well. This allowed us to tailor my research projects so that I can attain skillsets beneficial for my next career step after this fellowship. Postdocs at my institution are also required each year to accomplish an Individual Development Plan (IDP) with their PIs, so this is a great opportunity to plan and think about goals and milestones.
RR: I strongly recommend separate plans for short, medium and long-term goals that can be tracked at different intervals. It’s important to develop your career in the direction of your long-term goals. For example, if you would like a job at a predominantly undergrad institution get a teaching certificate and real world experience teaching at a local college. Find a mentor who is already in the career that you want.


How to handle conflicts and disagreements in mentor/mentee relationships?

JC: Fortunately, I haven’t had any major conflicts, and this is mainly because I always had a chance to share my opinions and be listened to with an open mind. Disagreements are normal, but if you talk about them and each party has a chance to explain their thoughts, then hopefully you can agree on a solution. Most of the conflicts I’ve seen are usually due to lack of communication, and so I think this is really key in maintaining a good relationship with your mentor or PI.
RR: In addition to good communication, mutual respect and trust are also important in mentor/mentee relations. If you find yourself in a toxic relationship, be sure to seek advise from other trusted mentors and peers. It may be better for your career and health to move on, however hard and scary that may seem.

“Most of the conflicts I’ve seen are usually due to lack of communication”


How could we foster interdepartmental mentorship programs at JHU? What might faculties do for that? How can postdocs take initiatives to seek expertise outside of their department or school?

JC: For me, I only had opportunities to have interdepartmental collaborations from my research projects. I also look out for seminars from other departments that interest me. Additionally, our institutional Professional Development and Careers Office has useful seminars about careers options. However, one really has to take initiative and spare time for these seminars, so I think it would be very useful if there is a system in place for postdocs to find mentors.
RR: We should normalize having a mentoring committee for each postdoctoral fellow, as is required for certain fellowship and grant applications such as the NIH Pathways to Independence (K99/R00) award. This committee could provide feedback on a fellow’s research proposal, help them practice job talks and offer networking connections. Departments that are recruiting new faculty could allow postdocs access to “chalk talks”, which are informal presentations by candidates to faculty on their proposed research. To build a mentoring network outside of their institution, postdocs should to join a professional society in their field, regularly attend their annual meetings and volunteer in society committees.

Authors Calvo, Rao and Duff

Resources:

Tobin, MJ. Mentoring: Seven roles and some specifics. Am J Respir Crit Care Med 170: 114-117 (2004)

Chopra, Edelson and Saint. Mentorship Malpractice JAMA 314:1453-55 (2016)

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