Tips and joys from being a mentor

A Bright Christmas #17

“I feel stressed.”
“I feel overwhelmed.”
“I feel lost.”
“I feel I am not achieving what I should.”
“Am I working hard enough?”
“Is it normal to feel this way?”
“It is hard to get to know my new colleagues during covid time.”

Do some of these questions sound familiar to you? I am certain they do.

Every scientist has struggles – we are experts in putting a lot of pressure on ourselves and believing we are the only ones feeling like that. You probably have heard of the impostor syndrome – the feeling that, sooner or later, our PI or colleagues will find out we are not made for the job or are a fake; the fear of not being worth the job or even of being fired. We all go through issues and doubt our capabilities at some point in the journey, often enough due to poor supervision, and this is why I believe mentorship is important. A mentor should be someone outside your group who can support you and with whom you can discuss work-related issues and your career development. In this post, I will talk about why I became a mentor and give you real examples of issues I help my mentees dealing with.

Everything started with supervision

From PhD to post-doc time, I always enjoyed supervising students. I was motivated by the reward of guiding them based on my experience, of passing to them the excitement of solving scientific questions and seeing them learn and grow as scientists. But perhaps even more rewarding was how much I could learn from each student I worked with: how they organized and planned their work and approached problems; how they interacted with the rest of the group and with myself; how they handled conflicts. I tried my best listening to them and asking and giving feedback so we could improve in our roles. I enjoyed following their development and seeing them progress to a new step. It was the way I found of creating a positive impact in the scientific world.

With each student we supervise we gain a new experience and a wider understanding of the different challenges one can face in their scientific training. And we become better supervisors.

Learning from group leaders

My passion for supervision naturally made me more observant also of how group leaders led their teams. With the five different supervisors I worked with during my 15 years of academic research, I experienced working with someone busy and absent or very supportive or present when necessary; with poor or superb leadership skills; PIs who listened and cared and others who normally delegated a lot of tasks to senior post-docs. And I witnessed how different supervision strategies can work effectively with different people, when handling situations such as successes, work planning, negative results, failed experiments, conflicts, deadlines, etc. I consider myself quite lucky since I didn’t have very negative experiences, especially knowing of so many cases of poor supervision leading to mental health issues and bright students leaving research right after the PhD. It seems clear that the type of supervision can determine someone’s decision to pursue a career in science or not.

Becoming a mentor

Most students I meet, either through direct supervision, interviews, or collaborations, end up getting to know my interest in these topics as I very openly share this with them. And, very likely because of this, I now have two mentees, one PhD student and one post-doc, who crossed my path and asked me to be their mentor. I was thrilled by the fact that they trusted me for the role and that I could use my experience to guide them.

This week I had the first conversation with my young post-doc mentee, and I share some of the insights from our conversation hoping they will be useful to many of you starting a post-doctoral position this year. Perhaps this will even motivate you finding a mentor?

My mentee moved countries in Europe to start her first post-doc position 10 weeks ago. She is working in a new scientific field, in a new city, with new colleagues and new supervisor. To make it even more challenging, we have an ongoing pandemic which limits everyone’s lives and doesn’t help someone who needs to settle in a new environment at so many levels. She started by describing how she has been feeling, using the same expressions I used at the beginning of this post (“stressed”, “overwhelmed”, “feeling pressure”, “feeling I am not doing enough”, “wondering if it is normal or not”). After we reflected together for a while (I also shared some of my early post-doc experience to show her it is normal to feel this way), she recognised she was putting a lot of pressure on herself and that, probably, 10 weeks of post-doc work in a new lab and field are not supposed to lead to groundbreaking results just yet. Also, it is normal to take time to understand how a new lab works, where things are, to make protocols work in our hands. No matter how excited we are to make a post-doc project work full speed, it is important to be patient.

I praised the fact that she had created a “post-doc journal”-excel sheet where she wrote down weekly what she did, related issues, and what she had achieved – her strategy to measure what she was doing and motivate herself. We also discussed the challenges associated to measuring productivity and goal achievement, particularly when the task is to setup a new method. She concluded it would be a good idea to define small weekly goals to improve focus and motivation. Then I asked her about expectations – hers and those of the PI. I think, in many situations, people tend to get stressed because they fear that the PI expects more than they can deliver (leading to the feeling of not working hard enough), but they rarely clarify it. We agreed that having an honest conversation with the PI and clarifying expectations for both sides could improve his understanding of her situation and help her setting realistic goals and deliverables.

Finally, we discussed how valuable it can be to reach out to lab colleagues, especially more senior ones, to learn from their experience in the same lab – I am sure she will realize she is not alone feeling this way after 10 weeks of post-doc work. Regarding the challenges of making connections with new lab members, we agreed it is harder now during the pandemic, when we are supposed to keep distance from others and move meetings online. An occasional “coffee-break” online, even if not ideal, could be a good way to connect informally with new colleagues. Something worth trying, she said.

My mentee felt very supported and relieved with our conversation and confessed it was very helpful to talk and rationalize her struggles with me. She was glad to learn that other post-docs experience similar problems and to feel she came up with new approaches to face her situation while talking about them with me. I felt very happy to be able to guide her and help her. My learnings for our next meeting are to give less tips and make her think more on her own and come up with suggestions under my guidance. Being a mentor is also a learning curve and I am excited to also be learning with my mentees.

Merry Christmas!

Cover Image taken from Pixabay.

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