Friday, August 29, 2014

Becoming a Mentor

Mentoring a Demography trainee
Mentoring a Demography trainee (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Introducing Dominika Bijos, one of the London Naturejobs Career Expo journalism competition runners-up.
Dominika Bijos loves communicating biomedical research. After earning her BSc in Italy and MSc in the UK, she worked in research labs across Europe. 

From DNA in the cell nucleus she moved her research interests to the smooth muscle in the bladder. 

She is now writing up her PhD thesis at the University of Bristol, UK,  maintaining an international and interdisciplinary peer mentoring network and enjoys presenting research in comics and short presentations. 

She organizes a yearly meeting for early career researchers in urology, where she promotes interactions, networking and mentoring. @DBijos
In May my colleague Stefan thanked me when he received a fellowship from the prestigious European Molecular Biology Organization. At the time, I didn’t understand why - he did all the hard work.

When I asked him, he told me that I had been his informal peer mentor: I pointed him towards the opportunity, helped him through the application process and provided feedback. And of course, I was there to cheer him up and keep his mind on other things during the long wait. At no point did I even consider I was being a mentor.

It made me think about what it means to be a mentor and how you become one. The core idea behind mentoring is to provide help and advice to those who need it on how to reach long-term career goals successfully.

I have never had a formal mentor, but thanks to my peer-support group, consisting of fellow PhD students and post-docs from around the world, I have discovered new research opportunities, discussed issues and improved on many aspects of my academic life.

Peer mentoring is often less intimidating than a more formal mentor-mentee relationship with a senior colleague. Discussing research ideas (or problems) with a group of people you feel comfortable with can be beneficial for everyone involved. You share knowledge and encourage each other to improve by providing constructive feedback.

In more formal mentoring programmes, a mentee is matched with a more senior scientist or professional, a living example of the success in the field that can help mentees identify specific goals and guide them through the process of achieving them.

Becoming a mentor is not a line on a CV or an obligation you need to fulfil; you need a genuine interest and should be willing to offer support. Here are a few tips for a beneficial mentor-mentee relationship, should you wish to get involved in one.

Realistic expectations

A mentor is not a superhero who can magically resolve all issues or has all the right answers. Being a mentor is like being a personal trainer: you guide and advise junior scholars to achieve particular goal; cheer and support along the way, but the work has to be done by the mentee.


As a mentor, you might be privileged to learn about a mentee’s personal background and family responsibilities that they worry about during career planning. Be a confidential sounding board to these professional hopes, dreams, personal woes, issues and fears.

Constructive feedback

Mentors can provide a fresh perspective on mentees problems and failures. A mentee can learn from their mistakes and improve, but need clear advice on practical actions to take next. Positive and realistic actions lead to improvement, and then a good mentor praises the achievements to build a mentee’s confidence.

Share and care

The best mentors can empower their mentees by sharing their career experiences, knowledge, skills and contacts. Mentors need to be genuinely interested in the mentee as an individual and care for their success. But be honest with each other: if in a formal mentorship programme your match does not work, it is ok to finish it and look for a more beneficial one.

Be interdisciplinary

“A mentor does not have to be directly from your field of research. It is in fact often better if they are not,” said Sue Wray, a professor at the University of Liverpool during Physiology 2014 mentoring session. A mentor shouldn’t find themselves with information about their colleagues regarding issues they cannot resolve.

Being from the academic or professional environment, irrespectively of the field of study, is sufficient to be a trusted advisor. Not only that, but working with someone who isn’t from your research field can provide different and interesting points of view that you might not have thought of.

Mentoring is not a one-way relationship to benefit the mentee. Mentors can also develop useful skills in managing and motivating people; benefit from seeing issues from a mentee’s perspective and can more easily solve them in their own context. As a mentor you create larger networks, better understand how people see you and gain personal satisfaction from helping others in achieving their success.

If you have the opportunity to experience both sides of this relationship, being both a mentee and mentor, then go for it, because both perspectives can improve your career and inspire your independent personal development.

Find out more about the conference delegates, exhibitors and workshop sessions at the Naturejobs Career Expo in London here, and you can follow the action on Twitter using the #NJCE14 hashtag.

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