The concept of “choose carefully and hold out for the great ones!” is of course true when looking for a life partner, your dream house, and perhaps a deal on a used car. But I would argue for a successful career in science it is especially true when looking for mentors. As I prepare to launch my own laboratory this summer as an Assistant Professor and as I think about the type of mentor I want to be, I can’t help but remember the fantastic mentors that have catalyzed my career thus far. Yes, I worked hard; Yes, I chose good questions and projects to pursue; Yes; I published peer-reviewed work in my field, and Yes; I received fellowships to fund my science: BUT without great mentors along the way, these things would have been near impossible and likely not sufficient either.
My Journey and influential mentors along the way:
After growing up with a love for all things science, I officially started my scientific career during my undergraduate studies at The University of Miami. My freshman biology professor, Dr. Michael Gains, noticed my misplaced passion that was directed at becoming a physician and first introduced me to research. He took me to conferences, helped me find my first undergraduate research experiences, and advised me on graduate programs to apply for.
I chose to pursue my PhD in molecular biology at the University of Colorado in Denver with Dr. Heide Ford. She taught me how to think about science and design targeted experiments to answer broad questions, but also provided an immense amount of support for me as a scientist. I had both my children while I was a graduate student in her lab, and she provided a much-needed example of a successful, happily married, mom-to-2-boys and kick-a** scientist. Till this day, I have modeled the balancing act of being a mom and being a scientist after her.
Following my PhD, I chose to stay in Denver for my post-doctoral studies – in spite of all the advice not to do so out of fear it would be a detriment to my career trajectory. But I had 2 small children at the time, and I had a substantial amount of family support in Denver. In order to compensate for this “negative hit” on my resume (a blog for another time on how biased against women, people with families, and minorities this practice of moving every 4-5 years can be), I sought out the best mentor I could find locally. I chose to do my post-doc with Dr. Andrew Thorburn. He was extremely generous with his time and read my manuscripts and grant applications carefully, sat through practice seminar and chalk talks, and discussed interviewing strategies. We discussed project ideas at length, but he gave me ample freedom to test my own ideas – failing often, but learning every time. He took me to international conferences, introduced me to leaders in the field, and when the time came, he was my biggest advocate on the job market.
I have always been the only person of color in most spaces I find myself. Science and navigating the academy is hard enough without the added burden of trying to climb a ladder that favors the success of a single demographic. I could write forever on the flaws of the system and the difficulties of being a black woman in the ivory tower (indeed I have, as have many others), but my story also highlights that there are great mentors out there that want to AND are capable of helping us along the way.
Some practical advice about finding mentors (applicable to all stages and careers):
Find many: There is a common misconception that you must find exactly one mentor who embodies everything you wish to be. This is perpetuated by the academic system where you have 1 PhD mentor or 1 Post-Doc mentor. But there is great value in having a diverse mentorship team. Allowing yourself to be influenced by diverse experiences and divergent thoughts will broaden your outlook on science, your career, and ultimately your whole life. We often gravitate towards those that look and think like us. When we cannot find mentors whom we can see ourselves in, it is isolating, and the tasks ahead feel impossible as though we are the first to embark upon the path. Conversely, when you can find a mentor that you see yourself in, these people can truly inspire your forward trajectory. But others who do not fit that bill can still illuminate your path and advocate for YOUR unique future, not THEIR specific past. I encourage you to build your mentorship team with people who are both similar and divergent from you.
Seek them out: During your training finding mentors is easy because they are forced upon you by the institutions, i.e. a PhD mentor. But often times these formal mentors may not be the right fit. Or, earlier/later in your career formal mentors may not be provided. Seek them out for yourself, offer to buy someone a cup of coffee, set up a zoom chat, etc. Repeat this several times over an extended period of time, and if the fit is right it’s easy to express: “It has been so great chatting over these past few months, I feel like there is so much more I could learn from you – would you mind if I consider you an informal mentor?” The worst they can say is “no” and then you probably misjudged them anyways and they wouldn’t have been a great fit.
Use them: Once you have assembled a mentorship team: remember why you value each of them individually and utilize their unique skills accordingly. Ask them their advice and take it (they should only be a mentor if you value their opinion). Let them into the inner workings of your decisions: discuss your outlook on science, careers, and life in general. Your mentors need not be your best friend who take your side no matter what. You want people that will force you to think about things differently, encourage you take risks, and give you the not-so-gentle nudges you need.
Be them: No matter what stage you are at in your career, your life experiences, thoughts, and opinions are of great value to others. I encourage you to be the mentor that you would want for yourself to someone else. Take the time to listen to someone’s story and recognize the inherent value of their lived experiences. Provide direction and advice when they ask for it. Remember, that you are likely part of a diverse team and do not take it personally if they only ask you about specific experiences, or only take your advice on select topics. If we all pay it forward, the culture of the academic world will be much improved for future generations.