Mentors for Life: Choose a Mentor to Be a Mentor

  • Stephanie Kidder
  • March 25, 2017

Written By: Stephanie L. Kidder Bowers, PhD


Reflecting upon my most important career accomplishment often surprises me. I don’t immediately think of my B.S. or PhD, the dozens of publications, decades of research experience, the cycles of reading and writing and thinking until my body just shut down, or spending uninterrupted weeks at the bench or culture hood, unable to learn enough about the fascinating behavior of cells in our body, finally getting that darn experiment to work.


I think of the people who were there.


I think of those who provided daily examples of hard work and helped me channel my talents to develop my career. The advisors, postdocs, graduate students and technicians who pushed me to do and learn more than I ever could have on my own.


I think of the people who taught me how to teach others.


My most important career accomplishments are in the people I have been fortunate enough to educate. Seeing realization and understanding in their eyes, talking to them about what they want their career to be like, watching them learn and grow – and then watching them help others learn and grow. I am usually first on their list, as the role of “student” and “teacher” is blurry.


This is what all facets of science and technology need to foster right now. We need to care about what others are doing around us in order to accomplish our goals and improve our interactions with the world around us. Unfortunately, this seems to be too idealistic for the world today.


Directing efforts toward individual fame and fortune is why science (specifically academic research) will continue to suffer. The job market is flooded, research and institutional funding is abysmal, and an outrageous publication system is promoting the dissemination of non-reproducible data and shifting our motivations for having a life in science and technology.


But we cannot just give up on the injured system and walk away. We cannot allow the “bad” science to thrive and diminish the work of those of us who are trying to do it right and stay focused on what is really important.


So, what can we do?


I mentioned all of the people who taught me and helped me grow. What I did not specify is that not all of these people were good at their jobs; some advisors had no clue about how to teach basic lab techniques, or coach someone through writing a paper or grant.


But that still taught me about what it takes to run a lab and manage people. They showed me things that they did well, and we were able to work together to accomplish the task.


What I also failed to specify is that some of these people weren’t even good people; they lied, cheated, and deceived others for their own gain (or so they thought). Some people were mean and just never smiled. And I’m convinced that some of them awoke with daily ambitions of bringing down everyone around them just because they could.


But I still learned from them. I learned about what I will NOT allow myself to be, nor will I allow the pressures of my occupation to push me into that box. If that means that my career isn’t going to look like what I planned for it to be, then fine. At least I will be the human being I want to be. I will have a life that I can be proud of.


I choose to follow those who hold similar beliefs, those who want to learn more so that humans suffer less.


This is called personal accountability, and that’s what we can all do to help science and technology thrive. We cannot just blindly follow what those around us do just because they are doing it, or because a social label says we should. Do things because you think it’s the right thing to do.


You are likely reading this because you have a career or life transition on the table. Regardless of where you are in your training or career, you need someone to learn from.


But keep in mind that there are also people that look to you when they are making decisions. You are already a mentor.


In that thread, choose mentors so that you can be a better mentor to others. Choose people who will make you better at life.


How can you do this? Find those who share your ambitions, goals and life values. A short list of things to consider include: type of education needed to meet your goals, geographic location, collaborators, outside projects/hobbies, family status, company/institutional goals, past trainees/employees, techniques you will learn.


You likely do not even know all of these things about yourself (I didn’t, and still don’t in some cases).  But choose ideals based on what you do know about yourself and what you want out of life.


Choose ideals that you want to be able to pass on to others.


When a mentor disappoints you – and because they are human, they will – learn from them. Talk to them about it, if appropriate. Thank them, remind them in your own way that they are making you a better person.


And if you find yourself in the unfortunate position of being under the guidance of a bad mentor or colleague, you are not stuck. You did not make the wrong choice. Your choice will be to do the right thing based on your personal values. Decide to learn from the experience and make it a good part of who you are. It will be hard, but talk to people, bring in other mentors to make sure you aren’t being taken advantage of. Do what you need to do to finish the job and move along. I do appreciate that this is easy to say, but there will always be people around us with bad intentions. We need to be prepared, and to help each other.


I am lucky to have had both bad and good mentors. I am lucky that my current mentor speaks of integrity and character, which is so important to hold on to right now. I, like you, am coming up on a big life transition and am leaning on all of my current and past mentors to help me decide what is best for me and my family.


Most of all, I am fortunate to have grown up with a family that instilled in me the concept of personal accountability. Sometimes I fail, but I try. And this is what I pass along to you if you were not as lucky as I. You are the strongest link to your success; together, we are all the best hope for fostering good science.


Ideals aside, practical resources are available to help you choose a mentor, interact with your mentor, and be a good mentor.

  • At QCist, our goal is to provide information about mentors and their environments, as well as stories and advice from more senior trainees and mentors, so that you can make a more informed decision about your mentor.
  • The National Research Mentoring Network is a nationwide professional development initiative for biomedical, behavioral, clinical and social sciences. They provide support, information and workshops for trainees and faculty at every career stage, and have many great resources on their website.
  • myIDP Science Careers is a great resource for learning about all of the things you can do with your PhD. They provide personal assessments of your skills and interests, and provide information about a variety of jobs that require your talents. This platform can be used to help you decide and organize your priorities and goals, which is vital in making decisions about your mentor.
  • A quick web search will reveal a large number of blogs and posts dedicated to people sharing their experiences with academic and private research. Remember that there is always another side to the story, but getting information from everyone who is happy and unhappy with where they are will help you get an idea of what kind of an environment you are looking for.



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