Choose a mentor according to your priorities

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  • April 23, 2017

Written by Dr. Kaputna 
Many people offer the advice to choose a mentor who suits you, but what does that even mean? These well-meaning folks may clarify that you should choose a mentor who suits your personality or your research interests. Sounds obvious enough, and for some doctoral students and postdocs, the process really is that simple. For anyone who struggles with indecision or often finds themselves lost in pro/con lists, choosing a mentor may be overwhelming.


When I was entering graduate school, I knew I suffered debilitating decision paralysis. I applied to four programs and accepted the first one that offered me a position, in part to avoid needing to pick one among several options. The program director and I had communicated via email throughout the application process, and I had come across her research while working in a lab as an undergraduate. At my interview, I met a few of her current students who spoke well of their experiences in her lab. Rather than rotate through several labs as other students did, I simply joined her lab. Once again, I avoided weighing several options because I knew I would be overwhelmed.


Reflecting on this decision, I’ve always felt I was lucky it worked out as well as it did. However, I did take into account some very important factors, including my mentor’s experience level (she was the program director), research success (I’d come across her work, even as an undergraduate), and reputation among students (they liked her and praised her mentoring skills). Even if I were to do it all over again, I don’t think I would make a different decision. After completing graduate school and two postdoctoral fellowships and seeing the struggles of my peers, though, I see that taking a more structured approach to mentor selection—both when entering graduate school and moving on as a postdoc—can be very valuable.


In addition to experience, research success, and reputation, below are a few more qualities that you should consider. I recommend creating your own list of important mentor traits and then prioritize that list according to your personal values and interests.


– Expectations of your time commitments. Researchers’ personal commitments to work-life balance fall along a wide continuum. On one end is a mentor who has an active life outside of work and works efficiently to get sufficient work done to make necessary progress. On the other end is a mentor whose personal life may be underdeveloped or in disrepair, who seems to always be in the lab or office, and frequently sends emails in the middle of the night. Many mentors are somewhere in the middle and take some variation of the ‘work hard, play hard’ perspective. A mentor’s personal commitment is not always a direct reflection of their expectations of their students and mentees, but this is something you should try to find out.


It may be helpful to have a candid conversation with your potential mentor about their expectations; and you should be honest with them about your own. If you have a family (or even if you don’t), you may not be willing to work past 5 or 6 in the evening. Long commutes, pets that require care, sports, and any other factors that affect your availability and working hours should be discussed. For me, work-life balance is a high-priority item. While I’m willing to work a little extra when a project or deadline truly calls for it, I am generally unwilling to work more than 8-9 hours a day. I am moderately social and highly active, usually training for some type of endurance event (marathons, ultramarathons, Ironman, etc) that require large amounts of my time each day, and my workouts are very important to me. I have been lucky to have supportive mentors, who understood when I ran to the gym to swim at lunch, and one even occasionally went for a run or bike ride with me.


-Mentorship and management skills. I already mentioned ‘reputation among students,’ but an important note is that a researcher may be very likable but a terrible mentor. Your mentor should be approachable and meet with you on a regular basis—preferably weekly. Researchers who have a lot of teaching or committee responsibilities may struggle to find time to meet this commitment, and that is a bad sign. Management style is very important, too; some researchers are micromanagers and some adopt a style that is more laissez faire. Each one can be frustrating for a student or postdoc who needs the other. Know what you need and ask for it. As a younger student, I needed a strong, involved mentor; as I’ve progressed in my career, this has become less important for me as I’ve become better at recognizing when I need help and being assertive enough to ask for it.


– Scientific integrity. I consider this one “sticky.” I hope it’s unlikely that you would knowingly enter the lab of someone who lacks scientific integrity, and it can be difficult to assess a superior’s lack of integrity up front. Good science means following the scientific method as you learned in elementary school; deviations from that can be subtle. Researchers often make compromises on ‘good science’ to perform ‘practical science,’ and the line between what is acceptable and what is not can blur easily. As you move through your career, you may encounter varying degrees of bad science, and you can always leave a lab because of it. Develop your own list of what scientific behaviors you find un/acceptable, and use this information to guide your professional interactions throughout your career.


– Personality compatibility. I hesitated to even include this because it’s vague, but really it just requires self-awareness. What are your key personality traits, and with whom do you work well? If you are early in your career, you may not know yet. Personality assessments (e.g., StrengthsFinders, Myers Briggs) may help you understand yourself a little better, which may help you choose a more suitable mentor. Personally, I know that one of my top five personality strengths (according to StrengthsFinders) is being “harmonious;” I am pretty easy going and accommodating, so I work well with many personality types. For this reason, I personally would not assign ‘personality compatibility’ as a high priority because I feel it’s less likely to be an issue for me.


The list could go on. Every student and postdoc will have their own unique list with their own unique priorities. What you need from a mentor will evolve over time as you learn more about your needs as a mentee and as you progress through each step of your career, so it’s important to re-evaluate and tweak the list as needed. For what it’s worth, my advice when choosing a mentor is to be self-aware and honest about what you need.

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