Which way is up?


There has been talk recently about the importance of mentoring post docs in the early stages of their scientific careers. And it shouldn’t just apply to science careers, but in this industry good mentoring appears to be crucial.

Why is this the case? A mentor is not just an ear piece – I have a mentor and they were instrumental in helping me decide to not only undertake a PhD, but provided numerous scientific advice during my PhD.

It’s not just for the young ones…

Mentoring and career guidance is not just for people beginning their careers. One senior scientist I know, who has always worked with drive and purpose, wrote recently that they felt mid-career mentoring was important, but lacking.

They discuss that there is a difference between a supervisor and a mentor and often it comes down to the role that these people play…

A mentor is a person that usually has nothing to do with your work and is solely there to objectively help you with your career and career aspirations… What you do in the lab is usually of little significance. Your supervisor, however, is often the person funding your salary or the work that you do, so they very much have a vested interested in what you are doing  but often not so focused on your career growth… Not because they are bad people, but their perspective is very different.

So even mid-career researchers can express frustration about career growth and a lack of direction or support. One article stated that “success is difficult to define, but one knows it when one sees it. A reasonable definition is the achievement of satisfaction and happiness in one’s profession, which then defers the definition to that of happiness and satisfaction.

So is the role of mentoring to help find satisfaction or purpose? Certainly, feeling like you are not going anywhere can lead to a lack of satisfaction with your career.

The solution appears to be diversifying support. This in turn involves acknowledging that driven and “successful” people often still need advice and direction, rather than be considered to be experienced enough that they would no longer benefit from this support. Importantly, it should not be considered as a weakness on their behalf.

Think of it this way, you may often know how to get somewhere from memory alone, but that doesn’t stop you from consulting a map just to be sure.

Final Thought

So what is the answer to this conundrum? People who are mid-career are already meant to know where they are going, but in these times of less grant money, or less secure jobs, things can seem a little more uncertain. Universities, institutes and companies should be actively promoting mid-career mentoring and support, for although it may not be considered important, there can be a trickle down effect in the mentoring of more junior staff.

But how do we implement it? My opinion, and that of others writing about mentoring, is that we need to talk more about the lack of mid-career mentoring, as well as the effects of good mentoring.

And finally, people should never be afraid to speak up if they are struggling. As we always said in the lab ” here is no such thing as a stupid question…”

[caveat: there probably is, but someone has also probably asked it before].