Mutual respect, trust, understanding, and empathy characterize an effective mentoring relationship (Rabatin et al., 2004). Good mentors share hard-earned lessons and technical expertise. They listen well but also know when to direct their mentee in more fruitful directions. They make an effort to know, accept, and respect the goals and interests of a mentee. They accept as a goal that the mentee's success is an integral part of their own success. The ideal mentoring relationship is a "win-win" partnership. But the mentoring process requires significant time and attention from both parties. If care is not taken, the process could lose its potential for success. As a result, preventive and corrective actions should be considered to ensure positive outcomes from the research training experience.
Not all mentors or mentoring relationships are ideal. Mentoring relationships are like others: some fail (Markis and Goldstein, 2006). If a mentee or a mentor believes that a mentor–mentee relationship is not going well, he/she should initiate a conversation with the other to discuss ways to improve the relationship. If this does not work to improve the situation, he/she should seek outside counsel, such as from an ombudsman, to develop a solution.
It is rare to find a single mentor who knows everything a mentee might need to learn in order to succeed. Sometimes, the mentee should seek a mentoring team. Mentees may benefit from multiple perspectives on theory, methodology, content, and career development. Multiple mentors might also be necessary to learn multiple career skills. Appropriate members of the team could include local or distance mentors with complementary content, theoretical, or methodological expertise. The mentee's division chief or department chair can be useful to help protect the mentee from burdensome clinical and administrative distractions and to provide counsel regarding career development and promotion within the mentee's field (Gill et al., 2004).
Multiple mentors may guide a mentee through his/her career; however, if one is applying for an individual NRSA application, the identification of one highly competent senior mentor often is preferable. One mentor must be in charge if there are multiple mentors, and this should be clear in the proposal. One reason for seeking a secondary mentor for an individual NRSA application is to bolster a junior primary mentor. A mentee may need a secondary senior mentor if he/she has a junior mentor who is lacking in publications, research grant funding, and/ or experience training at his/her level (e.g., predoctoral or postdoctoral). Those applying for mentored scientist (K) awards are more likely to list multiple mentors. Questions about mentors should be directed to program officials.
If Your Mentor Stops Mentoring
What happens when your mentor stops advising? What happens when the mentor-mentee relationship deteriorates?
- Formulate plans for resolving the situation.
- Attempt to resolve and improve the situation with the mentor.
- Know your rights: you don't have to stay with the mentor.
- Don't rely solely on your friends or significant other for advice.
- Consider getting outside counsel: see a career counselor, ombudsman, or associate ean or vice chancellor at your institution.
- Put your dissatisfaction in writing and talk to the PI of the training program, the division head, or your department chair, as appropriate.
The effective mentee accepts responsibility for his/her own academic career planning (Bower et al., 1999). Early on, the mentee should meet with the mentor to plan three essential aspects of the career plan: (1) management of one's career; (2) identification of the values, norms, and expectations of the division, department, university, and field; and (3) development of a productive network of colleagues and collaborators (Bland et al., 1990).
Career management and planning are individualized tasks that are a function of one's core values, aspirations, talents, and interests. The mentee must let his/her mentor know of his/her individualized goals and plans. Often, a department contains individuals who have numerous career paths, and a good mentor should help a mentee define his/her own path rather than impose one.
Frequently, it is assumed that everyone knows the values, norms, and expectations within a department, lab, or field, when, in fact, many mentees are unaware. Professional socialization is an important role for the mentor that is sometimes overlooked. A good mentee should gently cue the mentor or mentoring team to explain the rules and expectations of the department or academic affiliate, and of the field as a whole. As already discussed, some mentor–mentee relationships develop a written mentoring contract that formalizes these expectations. Whether such a contract will be necessary or helpful will depend on the culture of the individuals and institutions involved. Mentoring relationships have been known to fail despite a contract, and others have thrived with only verbal understandings. In any case, it is best to start with modest, realistic expectations and allow them to grow with trust and experience.
What Can Institutions Do To Promote Mentoring and Track Success?
- Establish a fixed training period for mentors, with goals, milestones, and standard yardsticks.
- Ask mentors to develop mechanisms for formal completion or extension of the training period, and promotion to faculty or research associate appointments.
- Continue to offer research training institutes for faculty and mentees; invite speakers to share their valued practices with the audience.
- Support the training of trainers.
- Establish an award for best mentor of the year or for distinguished mentors.
- Promote NRSA and other fellowship programs.
- Support minority and disparity training.
- Establish an annual review of progress for each trainee; provide feedback to individuals.
- Offer courses and workshops on how to perform the important tasks of research, such as grant writing, lab management, project management, and data presentation.
- Sponsor diversity workshops such as the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI).
- Provide the coursework for ongoing RCR training.
- Educate trainees about research employment.
- Make sure trainees know about the process for reporting grievances (e.g., ombudsman).
- Establish a local trainee society—include mentored scientist (K) awardees or early career faculty as well.
- Track grants submitted, papers published, major events, and contributions of each mentee.
- Ask mentees to give a performance appraisal of their mentor.
- Encourage mentors from different fields; post names of faculty interested in mentoring, along with their areas of interest, on a central research Web site.
- Educate mentoring faculty on research and grant productivity and markers of mentee success.
- Monitor faculty for mentoring abuse—use this as an evaluation criterion.
- Hold frequent workshops that teach mentoring skills.
- Reward mentors for good teaching and mentoring.
According to the AAAS survey, institutional commitment was mentioned by 78 percent of the mentees as a factor that correlated with career success. Mentors who work to make their environments better—not only for themselves but also for their mentees—are invaluable. Many institutions have set up competitive supplemental travel funds to help trainees attend scientific meetings. Successful mentoring programs at institutions also host annual conferences for postdocs and trainees to showcase their work to other trainees, faculty, and staff.
NIH does much to foster training opportunities and mentoring. For example, NIDA actively supports travel awards, poster sessions, and fellow-led symposia for research fellows and trainees at professional conferences. The Institute's goal is to promote professional networking between fellows and trainees from different programs and research institutions. By emphasizing the importance of mentoring, NIDA hopes to facilitate high-quality mentoring between senior scientists and their research fellows.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) and NIH also emphasize the importance of mentoring. NSF requires researchers to include a mentoring plan in every grant application. NIH states that PIs can count time they spend mentoring as grant-related, provided the training is related to the research (see Frequently Asked Questions: NRSA Research Training).
Mentoring junior scientists is one of the most important responsibilities of senior scientists. Mentors, as well as the institutions for which they work, must continually evaluate their training and mentoring programs to ensure the success of their research programs and the success of the next generation of scientists. Striving to improve mentoring ensures that the next generation of scientists will be well trained and positioned to continue advances in science and in public health.