Don’t Leave Your Mentorships to Chance—Tips for Inviting Support

Funding News Edition: April 05, 2023
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Mentorships play an important role in the career trajectories of new scientists, so what can you do as a mentee to create a better mentorship environment? Below are four proven strategies to develop and optimize your mentorships, as well as advice for mentors to consider before agreeing to a request for mentorship.

1. Developmental Networks Are the Key to Fruitful Career Growth and Personal Development

You may think that your career development hinges on a single mentor or mentorship, but in practice most mentees need a developmental mentoring network that consists of multiple social relationships each fostering career development and personal growth. The four subsets of career advisors–navigator, sponsor, coach, and confidant—can each provide unique advantages, and in combination provide a more well-rounded mentorship experience. 

Likewise, biomedical research requires that a scientist hone practical, hands-on techniques as well as methodological patterns of thought; plus, for a career as a principal investigator, you’ll need to build management and business skills. Just as your mentorship network should incorporate a variety of social relationships, your network should also reflect all the areas of growth in which you may need guidance.

2. Learn to Manage Yourself—Take Ownership and Accountability of Your Role in Mentorship

Before applying your networking skills to search for mentors with mutual interests, adequate availability, and resources, you need to identify your mentoring needs and desired outcomes. Being intentional and knowing yourself—your goals, values, current knowledge and skills, strengths, and areas of development—is key to finding mentorships that align with your goals. Write out your needs formally, so that you have more than just a vague notion of your future direction.

3. Take an Active Part in Managing a Relationship with Your Mentors

Along with knowing yourself and what your goals are, you also need to actively communicate with your mentors by identifying and revisiting your goals and desired outcomes. It’s likely that you will need to reassess and renegotiate the duration of the mentorship and meeting frequency as the mentorship evolves. Every person within your developmental network will play a different role, which will align with their time and investment. Be clear in setting expectations with your mentors.

The path to independent research is long, taking you through multiple career stages and likely several different institutions. Your mentorship needs as an undergraduate student will inevitably differ from your needs as a postdoc. Thus, you should plan for your mentors, and your relationships with them, to change as your career progresses.

Additionally, decide with each mentor your preferred communication modes as well as the method, type, and frequency of feedback you want to receive. Remember this agreement is not set in stone, as the context might vary over time and should be reassessed and renegotiated as needed.

4. Learn Quickly, Show Initiative, and Follow Through 

Be prepared when you engage with your mentors or colleagues, show that you’ve been mindful, reviewed any provided materials, and are ready to articulate your goals and needs.

Observe and integrate any instruction you receive and then apply the new knowledge to your current routines. Request and receive feedback without getting defensive. Show initiative and ask your mentor questions to clarify and pursue additional resources. Lastly, follow through with agreements you make, persist through any challenges or discouragement you may face, and provide updates to your mentor as new issues arise. Demonstrating effort will motivate your mentors to stay invested in your success.

5. Good Mentors Aren’t Born, They’re Cultivated—There is Always Room for Improvement 

Conversely, mentors should be intentional when establishing a mentorship. Before agreeing to a request, prepare by confirming that your experience and expertise align with the mentees’ needs. Hone your ability to provide constructive feedback since unintentional consequences like stress and tension can result from feedback that isn’t received as it was intended.

Be ready to introduce your mentee to new opportunities and new people. While some people have attributes that naturally make them good mentors, there is always room to grow and nurture your mentorship skills and capabilities. Good preparation will win out.

Also, be aware that there are structural barriers to mentoring at many levelsindividual, interpersonal, institutional, and systemicthat will impact you as a mentor and, in turn, your ability to have a positive, effective relationship with mentees. Such barriers are pernicious because they may be culturally and socially accepted or exist within the institutional barriers.

Selected Resources

To learn more about this topic, watch the video recording Developing & Optimizing Your Mentoring Relationship—2023 NIH Virtual Seminar. Refer also to our webpage Know What To Look for When Choosing a Mentor.

The video recording above presents helpful resources relevant to establishing a mentorship, which we’ve linked below for your convenience:

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