Life changing art of mentorship

2018-10-16

If a PhD is an island in our journey, I believe it is the mentors that illuminate the dark waters and guide the boat to the land. In my previous post, I talked about the importance of the mentoring practice and called out for more recognition for this non-research expertise.

During the undergraduate years, and even in the early stages of PhD education, we hear things about mentorship and code it as a good thing to have. Yet, I would argue that most of the time, we don’t have a concrete understanding about it until the alarm bells ring. If only we actually knew, from the beginning how to identify potential mentors, approach them and make the most of it we could finally realize the far-reaching benefits.

Of course, there is no mentor store to order one that has 5-star reviews. So how do we even find one and also make it fit?

Identify your need: Do you need guidance for your current project or a career advice? Are you applying for doctoral positions? Whatever that may be, it is very important to be clear about this. I imagine it like an exciting hike and try to have the end in my mind at the beginning.

Search for programs: Structured mentorship programs ensure the expectations are clear and the needs of both mentee and the mentor are met. They hold both sides accountable and follow up on the progress as well. Unfortunately, they are somewhat hard to find in Sweden. One rare gem is the centrally supported, structured programme in the Department of Biology Education at Stockholm University. This programme is music to my ears: The alumni mentor the PhD students to prepare them for life after PhD. Higher education institutes, including mine, desperately need more programs like this.

Spot potential mentors: If you don’t have access to such programs, fear not, you can build your own. Get to know people, observe their reactions to situations. Is there a person you look at and think “Wow, I want to be like her!”? It can be someone you wonder how she/he got their current position. Someone who gave a talk at a lunch seminar, a post-doc who knows a great deal about your topic. The key is to find somebody whom you respect and get along with. One of my mentors gives me wings and I feel optimistic and usually full of ideas.

Don’t be afraid: Most people will actually be flattered by your request, so there is no reason to shy away. And let´s be honest, what is the worst thing that can happen? They would say no and most likely politely do so. As an undergraduate student, I had a motto that helped me to get into a dream laboratory: An email is for free. If you get rejected, nothing changes in your life, you are the same. But if they say yes, your life changes.

Do your homework: The time with a mentor is precious and therefore needs to be focused. Beforehand, prepare a list of things you want to talk about. Every time I fall into doubt and find myself hesitating to contact my mentor for help, I remind myself that I must be proactive for my own sake.

How do we know if it is a good fit? A good place to start with is the comfort level. The earlier you establish a comfortable communication channel with your mentor, the better. Ideally, a great mentor broadens your perspective and leads by example. It is someone who is willing to take your side and has a positive, forward-thinking attitude. A PhD can look like a dark and lonely island but your mentors are your most-trusted allies that will get you to new and stable grounds.