A partial response to an open thread, this post originally appeared on September 19, 2009 at my old Blogger home. (Holy rat balls, who’d have thought Blogger could have gotten worse? But it did.) Bear = my PhD adviser; PSU = pretty Southern university where I did my PhD. I’ve also added a few more thoughts from an older (and hopefully wiser) Belle.
Last weekend I got together with former member of Bear’s lab (we’ll call him Forte) who was in town for a meeting. Forte was a senior grad student in the lab when I joined, and he taught me a lot about the techniques used in our lab, the system we were studying, and the politics of the lab. He finished up a little less than a year after I joined. It had been a couple of years since I’d seen Forte or talked with him much, sometime before I finished my dissertation.
Part of our recent conversation revolved around the education we received at PSU and what we learned from Bear. At one point, Forte commented that when he left grad school, he thought he didn’t get a great education there–sure, he learned stuff, he got his Ph.D., but it just didn’t seem like much… until he went somewhere else and realized the breadth and depth of his training compared with colleagues from other institutions. We also talked about the similar experiences we had as we left PSU: We were pissed with Bear. We were so ready to be gone. We questioned what we had learned from him. We just wanted to get out manuscripts out and get on with our lives. Then, a few months after we left, we realized that we had actually learned a lot from him and why he did some of the things that pissed us off so much.
Trainees (myself included) become very upset when there is a lack (sometimes perceived, sometimes real) of formal, structured mentoring. Our PIs becomes enamored with the newest shiny object or cool project or sexy data, and we feel ignored and neglected. Sometimes we’re just left completely alone for weeks or months at a time. Our PIs only communicate to get slides or figures or data or whatever for a talk or grant or paper. As a trainee, you essentially have two options: (A) Decide that your PI is out of touch, that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and ignore everything he does… or view it only as the antithesis of what should be done. (B) Realize that he’s been pretty damned successful up to this point and start paying attention.
I chose option B. That’s not to say I didn’t do my share of bitching and commiserating with fellow grad students. But I also paid attention to how Bear ran things. When he made suggestions or recommendations, I listened. By doing this (I realized after some time, distance, and reflection), I learned some incredibly important things from Bear. I learned how to write manuscripts, how to put together a clear, concise presentation of data. I learned a lot about grants–writing, submission, review processes. I learned that I should keep up to date with what’s being published, not just in my field of study but in other fields as well, and with what’s going on in science policy and funding. And a hell of a lot more. But in the end, the most important things I learned from Bear… he never actually taught me. He showed me, even if he didn’t know I was watching.
More thoughts in 2013 after more experience and tales from other trainees
Mentoring takes on many, many different forms. I’ve learned that many PIs don’t actively involve their trainees in developing and writing grants, but Bear did, and that was an incredibly invaluable experience. He could be “difficult” and push me, but he treated everyone with respect. Sometimes there appeared to be disparities between how hard and in what ways he pushed different people, but then I realized that part of that was adaptation to personalities – knowing, when pushed in a certain way, who would shut down and who would respond with action. And Bear has continued to be a great mentor to me since I left his lab. The mentoring is different, in a way more supportive in terms of saying, “This is a tough path. You’ve had some difficult experiences. It doesn’t mean you don’t belong. I had my struggles & doubts in my early days too.”
My current postdoc adviser is also a good mentor, but in completely different ways. He knows that we’re working on hard problems with systems that are sometimes not terribly cooperative. The entire lab is an older cohort (30+), and we’ve each experienced major life events during our time there. He’s kind of a cheerleader for the lab. He encourages steady progress while insisting we take time to take care of our lives outside the lab. He tinkers heavily with papers. He’s always around & spends way more time talking with us about data, plans for experiments, department/institutional politics, general issues in science, and random NYT articles. He gives us reign over collaborations, after initial setup. He brings us into more of the management (in part, because there are no admins to handle most of this, and in part, because he sees this as part of the job).
Somtimes there’s a clash of styles – what I need vs. what my mentor provides, or how he provides it. With my postdoc mentor, I’ve learned to sometimes ask for what I need or change the style of interaction to get it. For example, I give him PDFs of my writing so that he’ll give me feedback rather than re-writes. I refer to it as “managing up”. He takes it in good spirits and attempts to adapt, where appropriate.
But still it’s not quite enough. There are areas that need more work. I’ve had the excellent fortune to find some of this among the science blogosphere and Twitterverse. I’ve made connections with people in very different sectors. I’m working to establish and nurture more connections in my local scientific community, as well.
In the end, mentoring takes more than a mentor. It takes many mentors and many forms.