Recognize the mentoring practice!

2018-08-27

Are you a beach person? Do you like the great outdoors or urban trips? Which culture do you find yourself more drawn into?

Your career is the longest journey you will embark on. Most of us, PhD trainees, shoulder this challenge as if trying to find our direction in the middle of nowhere. Indeed, 60% of the 5700 doctoral students surveyed by the journal Nature reported that they sought for research and career advice on their own from the internet.

On the road to success, it certainly pays off to define your interests and preferences. If you know what type of ”traveller” you are, it gets easier to create a customized comfortable PhD journey. If you need a step by step plan for every minute of the trip, then you know where to start. Or you may be rather an adventurous and go for the serpentine through the forest.

Knowing your aspirations and setting goals is just the beginning of the expedition. PhD training harbour challenges even for the most fierce, committed person. Maintaining a work-life balance, financial issues, impostor syndrome, just to name a few. However, the uncertainty about future is the number one concern reported by doctoral students. The scarce guiding in career planning contributes to high levels of stress and eventually mental and physical health challenges. Almost like jumping into the ocean while you barely know how to swim, let alone navigating your way to safe lands.

There is an alarming shortage of mentoring schemes offered by academia. In many institutions, the experience and guidance of young PhD trainees is left solely to their supervisors. Of course, the guidance from and the recognition by the adviser is critical for professional and personal development of PhD trainees. In fact, it may even be the top determinant in their overall success and satisfaction. Yet, a considerable amount of graduate students are unhappy with the mentoring they receive from their advisor.

Some of the underlying reasons are the fierce funding competition and the haunting “publish or perish” state of academia. On top of this, the lack of incentive and recognition for the mentoring practice in their own career advancement further discounts the value academic researchers place in mentoring. Although there are numerous awards for scientific excellence and they come with plenty of money and prestige, there is simply not enough recognition for this pivotal part of academic culture.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had an index for mentoring (proposed as M index by Ben Barres) and we could use it for promotions/grants, just like the citation index? Or perhaps the group leaders who combine their scientific independence with equally strong support for young researchers could get an equivalent of Nobel prize in mentoring? In fact, there are a few initiatives emerging in this line: A regional award to scientists for their mentoring and even a government-funded regional support group for mentors in the US. These incentives should proliferate and spread because at times of distress, this non-research expertise is an important asset to steady the boat and keep the goals in sight.

In order to navigate my way through the ocean, I rely on the many of the lighthouses I spotted along the way. I like to think that the PhD is an island in my journey and the only way to get through it is to look around and seek for those that illuminate the dark waters. Fire a signal flare if necessary.

As an undergrad student, I was drawn to books about scientists and better yet, with advice to young scientists. These books were amazing guides on how to approach science but they did not mention the importance of selecting (a) good mentor(s). Nor was I able to grasp the gravity of this, even if I stumbled upon the rare ones that mention. Only now, I appreciate both the good fortune I enjoyed at the beginning and understand the consequences of a bad fit.

In the end, we all know that a good travel guide is the one that helps us avoid the dead-ends and suggests the best food in town. But obviously, you can’t just go to a store, look at the cover, scroll through pages and choose the mentors that look good. So how to make it fit?

Links:
Nature survey results
M-index reference
Nature community Awards
NIH-funded group/community for STEM mentors

Books about scientists that were referred here:
From Galileo to gell mann
Madame Curie
Rosalind Franklin and DNA
Advice To A Young Scientist

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