Each and every one of us has been mentored. We have probably experienced both good and bad mentoring and may have even had the opportunity to attempt it ourselves. Most academics do not receive formal training on how to teach or mentor effectively, and yet they are expected to do just that. So how do they learn the skill? What exactly are they mentoring on?
A mentee should ideally receive training in 6 main areas according to the National Postdoctoral Association.
1 – Discipline-specific conceptual knowledge. To perform good research, the specific field needs to be understood and previous work known to avoid unnecessary repetition.
2 – Development of research skills. To acquire good publication quality data, it is usually necessary to be shown how to operate equipment and the individual steps, which comprise the experiment. It is beneficial to observe how an experienced pair of hands performs, as there are small nuances which can make the world of difference. Included in this area is how to analyze and interpret data and design future experiments, how to perform effective literature searches, appraise published articles, and how to apply for grants and grant writing.
3 – Responsible conduct of research. It is vital that researchers have the ability to make ethical and legal informed choices.
4 – Communication Skills. The ability to describe our research to various audiences by writing and speaking at many levels is still key. Most scientists can happily present to colleagues who are immersed in the field, but have difficulty writing grant sections for lay people. Presentation development, delivery, and networking should also be included.
5 – Professionalism. Institutions have rules of conduct, which must be adhered to. They also have reputations to uphold. When representing your PI, and thus your research institute, you should behave appropriately.
6 – Leadership and management skills. Project management is an essential part of research. Establishing priorities, effective time management, remaining within a budget, good record keeping, establishing and working with collaborations, motivating others, contributing to the team effort, and being a good role model are all key skills all scientists should possess and cultivate.
Most academics can appreciate the initial three mentoring areas, as they will eventually benefit them with the production of papers. However, the final three points are often left out or skimmed over. To be fully prepared for either an academic career or an alternative career, each mentee requires a diverse array of skills and it is each mentor’s responsibility to provide ample training in each section.
If training is withheld, it may benefit the mentor initially by saving time and effort, but eventually the student will represent the success or failure of individual mentoring skills. Scientists are not only judged on their scientific prowess, but also as mentors and the future successes of their mentees. Ernest Rutherford is probably the most famous mentor ever. While he won the Nobel Prize himself, he trained eleven future prizewinners.
If you are given the opportunity to mentor others, it is a huge responsibility and commitment. That means you need to approach it carefully with some prior consideration on the goals and plan how you are going to reach them. Likewise, the mentee also has the obligation to apply themselves to whatever training is given and take constructive criticism without taking it personally. If the roles are performed well you will certainly have gained a friend, ally, colleague, and advocate for life.