Fellowship (F) grants and mentored career development (K) awards require mentorship, so if you’re interested in applying for either, you'll need to find a principal investigator (PI) to serve as a mentor. Choosing one is among the most important decisions you'll make in your research career, so be sure to give it careful thought.
To help you pick the right mentor, here are some points to consider.
Note: We use mentor in the singular, but you are not limited to having just one. In fact, if you can't find one person who can meet all your needs, you may want to consider creating a mentoring team.
First Things First: What Is a Mentor?
A mentor is someone who makes a long-term commitment to your career. He or she wears many hats—adviser, advocate, critic, instructor—to guide your research and help you with your professional development and advancement.
As for a big picture view of what a mentor does, the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education offers a good summary:
A good mentor will help you define your research goals, and then support you in your quest to achieve them. He or she will share knowledge, provide encouragement, and hopefully inspire you. In addition to promoting your research, your mentor should help you to develop your career goals and construct a scientific network. Above all, your mentor should be someone you trust to always keep your best interest in mind.—from Thoughts on Choosing a Research Mentor
Ideally, a mentor should be well known and well respected in your selected field and have essential qualities like being knowledgeable, open-minded, supportive, motivating, and a good listener.
He or she must be able to communicate clearly, give you appropriate projects to pursue, teach you to analyze and interpret results, as well as determine alternative paths.
Additionally, a good mentor should
- Foster collaboration.
- Ensure you're making progress towards goals.
- Give you feedback on your scientific work in a constructive and timely manner.
- Support your participation in career-building activities, e.g., retreats, grant writing.
- Encourage you to be independent, for example, in designing and conducting experiments.
- Introduce you to researchers in your field at meetings or conferences.
- Acknowledge your contribution to the research, for example, through authorship on publications.
- Help you with grant applications and review them before you submit.
Keep in mind that a PI doesn't have to meet all the criteria above to be a good mentor.
You probably won't know whether a potential mentor has the aforementioned traits until you start working together, which is why you'll want to do your homework before approaching someone to take on this important role.
Talk to other students, postdocs, or research assistants to get their feedback on whether the PI has the qualities listed above. Ask them if they receive enough direction, feedback, and advice, and if they find the PI accessible and available. This is key since one who is frequently away or too busy to answer questions or resolve issues won't be of much help to you.
As another part of your homework, search for papers that the PI has published. This way, you get an idea of whether your research interests match as well as a sense of his or her publication record, which should preferably show that the PI actively publishes in high-quality journals.
Another key element to consider: the PI's funding situation. Since an F or K award doesn't provide a substantial amount of money for research supplies, your mentor should be well-funded.
The "Get Acquainted" Meeting
Once you’ve completed your homework on a potential mentor, you’ll undoubtedly have a meeting to see if he or she is willing to fill this all-important role. This will be a chance for both of you to assess whether you’re a right fit for each other. As part of that, you’ll each likely have many questions.
On your end, you may want to know whether you’ll have your own project, what expectations the mentor has of trainees, how much independence you’ll have in planning and executing experiments, if you’ll have the opportunity to publish, how authorship works in the lab, and if you’ll be given the chance to attend conferences and workshops.
Also during the meeting, you should inquire about the PI’s training record. Peer reviewers will expect to see a solid one and check for items such as the number of people mentored and what positions past trainees hold currently.
Selecting a mentor is a personal choice. Only you can get a sense of whether someone will meet your expectations and be able to guide your development as an independent researcher.
As we mentioned at the outset, we encourage you to find resources of your own and talk to others about potential mentors you have in mind. The more legwork you do, the better your chances of finding the right fit.