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Mentoring for the Postdoc Fellow
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Mentoring for the Postdoctoral Fellow

(Excerpted from The POSTDOCket, Summer 2004)

by Jonathan S. Wiest

So what is mentoring?  It seems to me that this is a very important and difficult question and one that is often answered with, “we will know it when we see it”.  This isn’t very satisfying to those of us who are looking for good mentoring.  If we can’t describe it, measure it or delineate it, then how can we find it? 

I have read that the notion of mentoring is actually an ancient one and comes from Homer who described the original Mentor as the “wise and trusted counselor” whom Odysseus left in charge of his household.  A few things come to mind as I think about this quote.  First, the mentor should be wise and trusted, and second, they should be a counselor.  Lastly, the relationship is between two people.  This last point causes me the most concern as I look at how we select our mentors and trainees in the current postdoctoral training environment. 

As Ph.D.s we look to the science for our direction.  The science is what we are passionate about and it drives us to succeed.  I would never say this is not an appropriate approach.  In fact, I would argue that this method is necessary in order for scientists to make their mark in their chosen fields.  To be an “independent” investigator, you must spend vast amounts of time pursuing your goals. Passion helps you to sustain your drive.  However, this approach is not the best way to choose a mentor.  Often the people doing the most interesting science are not the best mentors.  The mentor - trainee relationship is a one-to-one relationship and the mentor should see more potential in you than you can see in yourself.  Moreover, the mentor should be someone who is willing to spend the necessary time with you in order to help you to achieve your career goals. 

When I was training Ph.D. students at the University of Cincinnati, students were able to do rotations through laboratories in order to get a sense of which faculty they could work well with and which science/projects were the most interesting to them.  It also gave the investigators time to interact with the students to see if they could mentor them productively.  In the current postdoctoral training atmosphere, investigators are hiring staff to assist them in moving their projects forward.  Often interviews are done over the phone.  While the science may be interesting to both the mentor and the trainee, there is no provision for the two parties to interact to test the relationship.  To me, there seems to be a real disconnection in the relationship.  What happens if I bring someone into my group that I don’t feel I can adequately mentor?  Now I have made a commitment to them.  How do I make this relationship effectively work?

To address these issues, I recommend having in-depth conversations with the mentor/trainee in advance.  Together, the two individuals should talk about their expectations and come to an agreement.  Discussion topics might include the amount of independence the trainee requires, the number of publications expected, how much time the mentor expects the trainee to spend working, how many meetings the trainee will attend each year, and whether or not the projects can be continued once the trainee moves on.  Just as important, it is crucial to remember that the mentor – trainee relationship is dynamic. These conversations should continue at least annually throughout the course of the relationship as some expectations and goals will change for both individuals.  Good communication will help to minimize problems.  Part of good communication is the ability to listen and listening is an important skill that both parties need to practice.  Pay attention to the needs and goals of each other and you will find success as you work towards your common goals. 

Jonathan S. Wiest, Ph.D., is the principal investigator of the Laboratory of Cellular Carcinogenesis and Tumor Promotion and the Associate Director for Training and Education at the Center for Cancer Research, National Cancer Institute.

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