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157. The Three Mentors You Need

Most graduate students look on their research advisors as a mentor – hoping for guidance on science, career, and life in general.

But even a superstar PI can’t provide that kind of comprehensive mentorship for all students all the time, and those stellar advisors are rare indeed.

That’s why EVERY student needs to think about identifying and building relationships with three distinct types of mentor through graduate school and beyond.

Competing Interests

Let’s face it: your research advisor may care about your development as a scientist, but they also have to worry about how quickly you’ll publish papers, how much grant money you’ve taken up, and what academic legacy they leave when their students and postdocs start their own labs.

That means that any advice they give you may have hints of those other interests. They can’t give an unbiased answer when you ask whether this paper needs one more experiment before publication, or whether a career in industry would be a good fit.

But you can help round out their guidance with advice from other mentors, and this week on the show, we discuss three types of mentoring relationship you’ll want to build.

The Other Science Mentor

It’s really important during grad school to have ANOTHER mentor who can also give you advice and feedback on the specifics of your project and your progress through your training.

For example, maybe you’ve started to write up your results to publish a paper, you give it to your PI to read, and they come back with just “one more experiment” for the seventeenth time. You think it’s a complete story, and by the way, you’re in your fifth year of grad school and really need to get this paper out!

Having another scientist familiar with your work and your field can be a good mediator in this situation. Or maybe you’re just stuck… your PI keeps telling you to repeat some experiment that used to give some cool result but now is going nowhere and you are out of ideas. 

How do you find a Science Mentor? Here are some features to look out for:

  1. They are knowledgeable about your research
  2. They are in your department (or are easy to connect with to share results)
  3. You enjoy talking to them

This mentor may be the PI of a lab you considered joining, or one of the members of your graduate committee. What’s important is that they understand your work, and can offer advice without the baggage or bias of your own research advisor.

The Career Mentor(s)

How many careers has your research advisor had?

If you answered 1, then you’re in the same boat as most graduate students.

To get a tenure-track faculty position, most scientists leap from graduate school to postdoc to assistant professor. And if that’s the career path you want to follow, your PI will probably have some knowledge to help you get there.

But what if you want to go into industry, or science writing, or entrepreneurship? It’s unlikely you’ll get anything other than blank stares or discouragement from your advisor.

That’s why having one, or more, career mentors is so important. These are individuals who work in the fields you want to work in, or they have the job you hope to achieve someday. Their experience and advice may differ wildly from what your PI would tell you, and that’s exactly what you want.

Good career mentors not only share their experience, but they can also help you identify training opportunities, job offers, and network contacts.

And in fact, even if you do want that tenure-track position, it helps to hear from a wide range of faculty members as their journeys may lend unique insights into your own path.

The Life Mentor

Life is so much more than experiments and papers and grants. That can sometimes be hard to remember when your cell lines get contaminated and your grant deadline is looming.

Identifying a ‘Life Mentor’ will help keep you grounded.

This is someone outside of your academic world that you look up to. Maybe they’ve achieved a healthy work-family balance that you want to emulate. Maybe they’ve experienced hardship and gained wisdom through that pain.

Or maybe they’ve done something incredible that inspires you like running marathon, oil painting, or founding a company.

Whatever the reason, look for a person who has a holistic view of who you are and what’s important to you. Someone who can help you zoom out from your day-to-day trials, and remind you of the kind of person you want to be and the kind of lifestyle you’d like to have.

This mentor helps you balance your work with your life, and to manage your mental health. They’re a trusted advisor and advocate who is always on your side.

And while you may have an ‘Other Science Mentor’ and a handful of Career Mentors, a Life Mentor can be hard to find. When you do find one, hang on tight!

Want to hear more about mentors? Check out these past episodes:

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