Sunday, October 27, 2013

On mentoring

One of the salient points that I've come to realize from my current job turmoil is how important mentorship is for the success of a young scientist. Mentoring provides the rudder in times of stress, provides structure for success.

And when it is lacking, nothing can fill the void.This is the single most important lesson to learn if you're thinking about a graduate degree. Choose the best mentor, not what you think is the best research.

Up until now, I have been blessed with incredible mentors. Mentors who listen, guide, helped figure out what was best for me. I'm still in contact with my PhD advisor and my latest postdoc advisor. Although the latter is partially due to a project that will not die (a year after I left the lab and we're still writing up the manuscript...), there is a stronger connection.

I've been at his house, eaten with his family. He's come over to my apartment, shared the birth of my youngest son. He didn't blink when I needed to brought my 1 year old to a meeting with our collaborators and had him play on the carpet in the midst of our R01 strategery - we simply formed a circle with our chairs and let him play in the middle. He has always understood that mentoring is more than just the science, it's about the person doing the pipetting and always understood how important family is to me. Under his guidance a scientific family formed within his lab.

So I suppose it's only natural that within a minute of seeing me the other week he asked what was wrong. And I couldn't help myself. I told him. All of it. And we planned. And figured out a way to make my job work for me (to be fair, my wife and I had already come up with much the same plan, but it was nice to get validation).

Even though I came to talk about a manuscript resubmission (stupid reviewer #3!), I got so much more and came out of my impromptu meeting with a renewed vigor. The weight of a crappy situation was lifted from my shoulders. Partially just the act of sharing my story to someone who could listen and give me insiders advice.

Although it helped that I realized how far he would go to help me. He offered to rehire me as a postdoc. We both agreed it didn't make sense since I'm relatively protected with my current grant, but the gesture was not lost on me. Like so many labs across the country, money is tight in his lab, yet here was someone who cared about me and would step up if needed. Who heard my complaints and believed my story and my assessment. It's a nice feeling to know someone has your back and is confident in your abilities. Like a PhD advisor who was considering an offer to a far away institution, but wanted to talk with me first. To see if I could join them as a research assistant professor...

And that is why I mentor every student to the best of my ability. Why I try to understand their goals, or try to get them to identify what their goals are. It is too easy to be a selfish scientist. To worry about only your problems. To manipulate others to accomplish your goals. But the truly great scientists are leaders and have a transcendent ability to watch and revel in the successes of their mentees.

For, as I was once told, "you are only as good as those you have trained. The measure of your success as a scientist is whether those you trained achieved greatness in whatever they chose to do - industry, academics, or government."

I hope so. Because it feels good being able to pay it forward....


  1. I'm so glad you were able to get that validation.

    Now...are you looking for a beaten down grad student to mentor?

    1. Always.

      But don't forget that every grad student feels beaten down at some point. It's the ability to get back up again that identifies the best. :-)

  2. Thank you for your post on mentors. I'm an undergraduate who just was in a bad research situation for several years, and when I met a former professor/mentor at a poster session, he immediately picked up on what was going on and invited me to chat about what was going on at a later time. Fast-forward 6 months, and he's agreed to be my PI for an undergrad thesis even though my training is only tangentially related to his research, and it's a lot of extra work for him, especially because it's a completely new project that we're creating and *something* needs to be written and presented in 1 school year's worth of time. Glad to know there are other people who who are trying to be good mentors as well as good scientists.

    1. Thank you for sharing - it's too easy to give examples of bad things happening to us that it sometimes gives the impression that no one is willing to help. The honest truth is that there are a lot of people willing to help each and every one of us. We just need to open up and talk to them.

  3. Encountered your blog via chall (''), very good thank you.

    1. Thank you for dropping in and I'm glad you like it.

      I love chll, although it's been WAY too long since I've commented on any of her blog posts. I need to change that....