How To Find the Right Mentor for Early-Career Awards

Funding News Edition: June 16, 2021
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Selecting a mentor is a personal choice based on your sense of whether someone will meet your expectations and guide your development as an independent researcher.

Credit: NIAID

If you plan to apply for a Fellowship Grant (F) or mentored Research Career Development (K) Award, you must find a principal investigator (PI) to serve as your mentor. Choosing a mentor is one of the most important decisions of your research career, so give the decision careful thought.

This article summarizes key points from NIAID’s Know What To Look for When Choosing a Mentor page and Application Advice for Mentored Ks section.

Though we say “mentor” in the singular here, note that you are not limited to having just one. If you can’t find a solo mentor to meet all your needs, consider recruiting a mentoring team. Whether you find one mentor or multiple, you should describe each mentor’s role, expertise, commitment, and a communication plan in your application.

Qualities of a Good Mentor

A mentor makes a long-term commitment to your career as an adviser, advocate, critic, and instructor whose guidance helps your scientific plans, professional development, and advancement. Here is an excellent summary from the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education:

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.

The ideal mentor is a well-known and respected expert in your area of science who is also open-minded, supportive, motivating, and an excellent listener. Look for someone who can do the following:

  • Communicate clearly with timely and constructive feedback, guidance for your projects, and advice on grantsmanship before you submit an application.
  • Support your science with appropriate projects for you to pursue, progress checks, and instruction on how to interpret results and determine alternative paths.
  • Foster your career with collaborations, challenges to encourage your independence, introductions to other relevant researchers, and acknowledgement of your contributions.

Your candidate PI doesn’t have to meet every criterion above to be a good mentor; these are examples of helpful characteristics to consider.

Carefully Check Candidates

Unless you have worked with your potential mentor before, it can be difficult to discern whether the PI has the aforementioned positive traits. Before you ask anyone to be your mentor, we recommend that you do some homework and get to know him or her indirectly.

Start by talking to other students, postdocs, and research assistants who know your potential mentor. They can give valuable feedback on whether the PI has the qualities listed above. Be sure to ask about your candidate’s availability; does the mentor travel often or seem too busy? You want an accessible and responsive mentor who has the time to meet your needs, answer your questions, and provide guidance.

You should also check the PI’s publication history. This search can give you a solid sense of whether:

  • Your research interests are a match.
  • The PI actively publishes in high-quality scientific journals.

Lastly, consider the PI’s funding situation. Since NIH F and K awards do not provide substantial money for research supplies, your mentor’s lab should be well-funded.

Meet and Ask

Once you feel you have learned enough about your potential mentor, get acquainted and arrange to discuss whether the PI would be willing to fill this important role in your career.

This meeting is your mutual opportunity to assess whether mentorship would be a good fit and ask critical questions. For example:

  • Will you have your own project? How much independence will you have to plan and execute experiments?
  • What does the mentor expect of trainees?
  • Will you have an opportunity to publish? How does authorship work in this lab?
  • Would you be able to attend conferences and workshops?

You should also ask about the PI’s training record. In your eventual application, peer reviewers will expect to find a solid training record. They will check the record for the number of people mentored, what positions your PI’s former trainees currently hold, and more.

Your Choice

Ultimately, selecting a mentor is a personal choice based on your sense of whether someone will meet your expectations and guide your development as an independent researcher. The initial effort you spend on vetting and conversations should help inform your decision and improve your chance of finding the right fit.

Reference Links

Learn about NIAID Training and Career Development Grant Programs and contact our Training Help Desk AITrainingHelpDesk@niaid.nih.gov with your questions.

Find more about mentoring in these NIH 2020 Virtual Seminar Presentations:

Contact Us

Email us at deaweb@niaid.nih.gov for help navigating NIAID’s grant and contract policies and procedures.

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