Mentoring a junior scientist offers plenty of benefits for you as well

Mentoring novice researchers and students is a great way to give back to the scientific community and recharge your own work life. Rajini Rao, a professor of physiology and director of the graduate program in cellular and molecular medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the US, finds that mentoring offers immense emotional benefits: ‘Being able to mentor a student or young faculty or an early-career scientist is very rewarding, because you can often see the results of (and monitor) their success in a much shorter term than your own research.’

Terry McGlynn, a professor of biology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, finds there are many practical pay-offs of nurturing young talent as well. ‘Working with junior scientists is a really good way to stay up in the field,’ he says. ‘These people are experts in what they’re doing more than anyone else.’ Moreover, he adds, many of these relationships evolve into collaborations.

When you mentor someone, you develop insight into your own challenges, says Rao. ‘Many women don’t want to put their names up for an award or a promotion, because they feel that they will be perceived as being too pushy,’ she explains. ‘When I advised somebody about that, I noticed that I have the same issues myself.’ Julie Starr, a leadership coach and author of The Mentoring Manual: Your Step-by-Step Guide to Being a Better Mentor concurs. Let’s say you explain to your protégé the benefits of choosing to do the right thing over something easy. ‘Then in the next conversation or the next situation that confronts me, where I could do the easy thing, I … hear my own words ringing in my ears: do the right thing, not the easy thing,’ says Starr.

Do it right

Mentoring isn’t always easy, but there are rules of thumb you can follow. Michal Melamed, associate professor of medicine and epidemiology and population health at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the US, says it’s important to discuss the mentee’s goals early on. ‘I can impose my own expectations – you need to write two papers and a grant – but if that’s not what they want, the mentoring relationship is not going to work out,’ she says.

You should also decide the scope of the relationship from the word go – from how regularly they’d like to meet to where your own boundaries lie. ‘I tell people that I’m at this point in my career where I’m sort of crazy busy all the time. I am here for them, but if they need something, they need to come to me. I’m not gonna go chasing them,’ says Melamed. And, as Rao explains, you don’t have to mentor a person in all aspects of their career. ‘Your mentee could always seek other people to get advice on other aspects that you might not feel qualified to advise them about,’ she says.

If you need to deliver criticism, do it constructively

As you get to know your mentee and work together on their goals, you can help them identify areas that they need to improve on. It’s also important to give them opportunities to work on these skills, says Arundhati Nag, assistant professor of chemical biology in the Carlson School of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Clark University in the US. For example, she asks mentees who need to build up their confidence to organise discussion sessions for junior students where they summarise recent lectures and sharpen their public speaking skills.

If you need to deliver criticism, do it constructively. ‘Don’t just say, “I don’t think you’re going to make it in this job”. That’s terrible. You don’t know that anyway,’ says Rao. ‘You could say, for example, that “I think to succeed in this job, you need this particular skill. At present, you don’t have it.”’

Regular assessments can also help you ascertain whether you are successfully addressing their needs, says Starr. She recommends asking questions such as: ‘How much do our conversations meet your goals and objectives for this relationship? How else could I be serving you?’

Find a suitable opportunity

Your university or professional society may offer formal mentoring programmes, and alumni networks are another avenue to seek out potential mentees. McGlynn mentors some students from his PhD lab, even though he left it many years ago.

There are also more informal approaches you can take. Many people approach Rao for advice on Twitter. She says social media is a ‘wonderful way to reach out to people even outside of your field,’ and allows you to provide quick support to people on the go.

If you belong to an underrepresented group in science you can also serve as a role model for others who share that identity, says Rao. ‘So that way they can see that, “Oh, it is possible to get ahead in my chosen field, even if I’m a member of this underrepresented group”’.