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ASIP.org > BLOG > April 2016

ASIP Pathogenesis Blog, April 2016

President's Perspective. . .Scientific Mentorship
William B. Coleman, PhD, ASIP President

As trained scientists (or scientists-in-training), we've all had teachers of various sorts (at the undergraduate or graduate level), as well as research preceptors, academic advisors, and others who have guided us along the path to where we are now. There is no question that all of the people involved directly or indirectly with our education/training played an important role in the progress and eventual outcome of that training, and by extension our ultimate successes. While all of these people were important in their own right, only a few of these people carry the special designation of mentor. Mentors are exceptionally important in the initial training and continued development of a scientist. Mentorship is important for all of us, whether we are in academic science, biotechnology or industrial science, government research or policy, or some other science-related career (or on a pathway to such a career). Mentorship should be pursued intentionally and with a knowledge of its relative value. This blog post is intended to encourage everyone to ponder mentorship, how we receive it from others and how we provide it to others, its significant role in our professional development, and our responsibility to be effective mentors when the opportunity presents itself.

What is a Mentor?
A mentor (noun) is "...an experienced and trusted advisor..." and to mentor someone (verb) is to "...advise or train..." By extension, mentorship is "...is a relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps to guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable person..." Mentors are not necessarily older than their mentee (although this is often the case). Likewise, mentors are not necessarily of greater professional rank than their mentees (although this is often the case). In all cases, the mentor may be older or younger, but will have a certain area of expertise to draw upon in guiding the mentee. Despite the definition, mentors are different from a simple advisor. At a basic level, mentors provide thoughtful advice for specific professional situations and are a source of best practices related to professional development. Beyond this, mentors nurture their mentees. Mentors invest in their mentees even though they often have no personal stake in the outcome. Mentors enthusiastically devote time and effort to assist their mentees and ensure the success of the mentee. The question "...what's in it for me?" should never be considered by an effective mentor. The success of the mentee is sufficient reward for the mentor. Effective mentors take no credit for the success of their mentees. Most rationalize that their mentee would have succeeded without the mentoring provided. While this may be true in some cases, those of us who have benefited from effective mentoring know its intrinsic value and the role it played in our eventual success. Effective mentors commit for the long-term. Hence, mentors often provide guidance for their mentees over the course of their entire career and professional life. The best mentors are cautious and reluctant to provide too much mentoring because effective mentors recognize that "...mentoring can be stifling..." That is, with too much, inappropriate, or heavy-handed mentoring the mentor-mentee relationship can devolve into something that resembles a supervisor-supervisee (approximating a boss-worker) relationship (where one is subservient to the other and there is a clear benefit to the supervisor). The healthy caution exhibited by effective mentors can be confusing to the mentee because the mentor may appear to be unwilling to provide mentoring at some point in time during the mentoring relationship. Mentees should see this as the mother bird kicking the baby birds out of the nest - harsh but necessary - a sign that the mentoring relationship is maturing.

Who Needs a Mentor?
The short answer to this question is...everyone. No matter how old or experienced, everyone can benefit from mentoring. One does not outgrow the need for mentorship when (i) emerging from graduate school or at the completion of postdoctoral training, (ii) a faculty position is secured in an academic institution, (iii) one secures their own laboratory space, personnel, and research funding, (iv) he/she publishes several papers in very high-impact journals…and the list of examples goes on and on. In fact, mentors are particularly useful just before and just after any professional transition. With a new professional position, the expectations and requirements associated with the job change, sometimes in ways that are not so obvious. In this circumstance, the effective mentor is the one who has previously navigated the same (or similar) professional transition and can provide guidance on the factors that will lead to success or contribute to failure. It is not surprising that many people have several mentors - in some cases reflecting a succession of people that provided mentoring and in other cases reflecting the need for diverse expertise to guide current professional activities and direction.

Does Everyone Have a Mentor?
Nope. It is universally true that people who actively seek mentoring need it the least, and those who refuse mentoring need it the most. This may reflect the fact that people who seek mentoring also seek to benefit from the best practices of others, while those who refuse mentoring choose to take on professional challenges alone. Despite the obvious benefits of mentoring, some people do not relish the advice or guidance of others. As a result, these un-mentored people often struggle professionally (although not always). I personally have never regretted having numerous mentors and the mentorship they have provided. I suspect most people would agree that succeeding through mentorship is a better result than failing without mentorship.

Who is a Mentor?
Clearly, calling oneself a mentor is not the same thing as acting as a mentor and providing effective mentorship. Mentors come in various forms and it is not unusual for an individual to have several mentors at the same time, each of whom may serve a unique mentoring role. Many academic institutions now require faculty mentoring programs to ensure the success of new faculty members as they progress through the academic ranks. In these cases, the mentor-mentee relationship is among faculty peers, in most cases between a junior faculty member and a more senior faculty member. In fact, all academic faculty can benefit from mentoring - related to academic promotion, professional development, national reputation, research funding, professional service, and others. In some cases, faculty peer mentoring occurs between individuals who are at similar academic rank. Effective department chairs are good mentors for their individual and collective faculty. Likewise, division chiefs, vice chairs, and others in leadership positions have a need to mentor their faculty. People who act as directors of graduate studies or other training program directors have an obligation to mentor their trainees (whether graduate students, medical students, medical residents, or postdoctoral fellows). For people doing laboratory research, the leader of the laboratory (faculty member or equivalent) should serve as a mentor. To be an effective mentor in each of these situations requires different skill sets and experience is also a key to success.

Choosing a Mentor
Many of us stumble into mentoring relationships. As undergraduates we pursue research projects in available laboratories without much consideration of what sort of mentoring we might receive in that particular environment. As graduate students, we choose laboratories and research preceptors based upon our interest in their research, often without consideration of the quality of mentoring we will receive in that setting. By the time we emerge from graduate school (for instance), we begin to recognize that mentoring is important. In some cases this recognition is due to the effective mentoring we received from our research preceptor. Unfortunately for some, this recognition comes as a result of the lack of effective mentoring that was provided from the research preceptor during this critical period of training. In fact, we learn valuable lessons from both our good and our bad mentoring experiences. These lessons help us to refine our approach to choosing mentors, but also shapes the sort of mentors we eventually become. Choosing an effective mentor has clear benefits. Hence, some effort should be exerted to identify good mentors and secure them to assist in one's professional development. Outcomes of the potential mentor's other mentees provide a good source of data related to success of the mentoring relationship. It is best to take the long view when selecting a mentor - someone that can help you now and later in your career.

Mentoring Programs Offered by the ASIP
The PathFinders Program.The ASIP Committee for Career Development and Diversity developed the PathFinders Program to provide short-term mentoring for first-time attendees of the ASIP Annual Meeting (at Experimental Biology). This program began in Boston in 2013 and has expanded since then. The intent of the program is to build camaraderie between trainee members and more senior members, and to facilitate a one-on-one interaction in the context of the Annual Meeting where the regular member can provide some guidance to the trainee regarding navigation of the meeting scientific program and other events. This program has been very successful to date. In fact, outcomes from this program exceeded expectations. In many cases, the mentor-mentee relationships formed at the Annual Meeting have become longer-term relationships, where the mentor provides guidance to the trainee on a range of subjects related to academic and professional development. Trainee members who plan to attend the ASIP Annual Meeting in 2017 or beyond should consider taking advantage of this valuable program.

The PathForward Program
The ASIP Committee for Career Development and Diversity
developed the PathForward Program as a "Year-Round Mentoring Program" for junior faculty and more senior postdoctoral fellows. This program began in 2015 and is steadily growing. Its intent is to match more senior regular members with interested members who are in their first professional position (academic faculty or other) or are just about to pursue such a position. Mentors and mentees communicate on a regular basis by email or teleconference, and when possible, meet face-to-face (at the ASIP Annual Meeting, PISA, or at their own institutions). The mentors in this program augment the mentorship provided to the mentee in their own institutional setting. As such, the mentor provides additional and/or different perspectives to the benefit of the mentee. Mentorship through this program provides career development advice, professional skills growth, as well as tangible assistance with research grant preparation. Interested junior faculty or senior postdoctoral fellows should consider taking advantage of this valuable program.

Resources for Mentors and Mentees
Numerous useful resources are available to assist in the development of effective mentors and mentoring strategies. ASIP provides three brochures in both print and on-line formats: The Road to Becoming a Clinician Scientist in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Journey to Success: Career Pathways for Biomedical Scientists in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, and Pathology: A Career in Medicine, There are also publications from the Burroughs Welcome Fund and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), including Entering Mentoring, and Making the Right Moves. Likewise, useful resources are available for mentees as guides to mentorship, including resources provided by the HHMI. Mentorship resources can be found in the web-based resources of several journals, including Science, and Nature. Mentorship resources and blogs are available through FASEB, the FASEB MARC Program and several FASEB Societies (for instance see this post from the ASBMB). Additional resources can be found on the web, including resources provided by the National Mentoring Resource Center. In addition, insightful commentary on mentorship can be found through various Facebook pages that are devoted to careers in academic science and related issues.

 

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