What have you taken with you from your mentors?

Jul 02 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

In case it's not clear, the question in the title is figurative. If you stole something from a former lab, you don't need to air that here. But I am curious this morning, if people can pin down what the most critical thing they have learned from their various mentors is. For me, it would be something like:

Undergrad mentor: There's few people I know who have more love for what they do. Anytime I hear UGM described by others, the word "passion" gets thrown around a lot. The most important thing I learned from this person was to do what you love.

Grad mentor: GM taught me how to be a scientist. I went to work with GM because of what they do, but came away from that lab knowing what it meant to be a scientist. This isn't as common as we would all like to believe.

Postdoc mentor: I learned to write as a postdoc. That's not to say I was a bad writer prior, but I learned to write in my postdoc lab. I gained a lot of skills and depth there but learning how to be a successful communicator has been the most critical skill I left with.

How about you?

18 responses so far

  • scicurious says:

    Undergrad mentor: A love of teaching. Seeing someone else "get it" and come to love science lights up his life, and it lights up mine.

    Grad mentor: To shoot for the stars. You never know you'll get rejected until you do, and if you don't apply, you'll never get in.

    Postdoc mentor: How to mentor others, provide guidance without stifling.

  • I love this question!

    My undergraduate mentor taught me to ask -why-, and not to stop. He taught me to challenge conventional wisdom in ecology, and that sometimes, personal stories are important to understanding why certain ideas took hold and others didn't.

    My graduate mentor taught me how to be a strong writer-- something he got from his advisor. I honestly think I learned more about grammar from him than I did in college English courses! He also taught me a lot about ethics and how to be a stand-up scientist and colleague -- not that I was unethical before, but I've learned a lot by his example about erring on the side of openness, respect, and collegiality. Whenever I have a question about moral grey areas in academics, I ask him.

    My postdoc advisor has taught me how to position myself competitively, and to think strategically about publishing and branding myself.

  • Busy says:

    "Choose your battles"

    "Treat grad students as your peers" (which is not to say you are not mentoring and guiding them all the time, but you do so in the same way you would a young tenure track prof).

    "Be generous with coauthorship"

    "If someone doesn't carry his/her weight stop further collaborations, but do not get into messy battles"

  • Dr. Noncoding Arenay says:

    Grad mentor - Biggest thing he taught me was scientific writing. This has helped me immensely in being able to write a decent proposal/manuscript independently. Apart form that I learned to prioritize projects, to let things go if they aren't working out, to handle situations diplomatically and to give credit where its due (read authorship).

    Postdoc mentor - Just been here a few months so can't say much at this point, but apart from research some of her stated goals (that I look forward to) are to mentor her postdocs in other survival skills that are crucial for independent investigators, such as knowing how to seek collaborations, how to navigate politics and how to spot scientific trends.

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    UGM & GM (one and the same): To be tough. If you believe in something, keep at it. Science is not an easy profession, so you better be prepared for anything and everything. How to get your money's worth :). How to give a good talk that connects and resonates with your audience.

    Post-doc mentor: How to manage people with grace. When to become personally involved with trainees and when to back off. How to just go for it and ask the important question.


  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    Oh right I was in the middle of a thought....crazy day....
    Dudes, I've been incredibly lucky by having a lot of mentors, besides my GM and PDM, there's a lot to learn about this job of ours!

  • Jen says:

    Undergrad mentors: That women rock as teachers, scientists and moms. That I actually am capable of doing good science (I had huge self-esteem issues). I now have their jobs (working at a liberal-arts university) and am grateful for their many years of encouragement and support.

    Grad mentor: how to design and carry out experiments with care, finesse and passion (my grad mentor did a lot of benchwork, and I received a lot of hands-on training from him). How to manage a lab (I ended up being the chief go-to person for ordering, finding things, and training lab techs). How NOT to mentor grad students (as much as I respect, admire and get along with my grad mentor, he is not a good mentor to students).

    Postdoc mentor: How to dream big and chart your own course in research. How to be generous (in time and resources) to your lab members and colleagues. How to balance work and life (the lab was incredibly productive, but we still managed to have fun - frequent lab outings, shutting down the lab during March Madness or World Cup games, etc. He took time off to spend with his kids, and encouraged lab members to do likewise. He supported the female members with paid maternity leave and by being understanding of child care issues.)

  • Anon says:

    MSc mentor -- how to do science, how to formulate testable hypotheses, set up appropriate experiments, and most importantly, how to analyze them. Experimental rigor!

    PhD mentor -- how to be a professional scientist. Know the literature, know the important questions, know what's missing, and figure out a way to test it! I learned the importance of scientific narrative, and making sure the research tells a comprehensive story.

    Post-doc mentor -- to be excited and passionate and positive about research, and to aim high! I learned work-life balance from my mentor (much to my surprise), to not sweat the small stuff, and to love what we do!

  • Doctor PMS says:

    What I liked most about your question is that it made me think about how my mentors helped me to become the researcher I am now!

    My undergraduate and graduate mentor (same one) taught me how to love science. OMG, she does everything with so much passion and made us believe that our research was the most important out there! Because of her I believe I'm always very enthusiastic when describing my research and presenting my results. This is something I try to pass to my students now! I am a happy person to work doing something I love, and I believe if you don't love what you do you should go ahead and look for doing something else you love!

    I had two PD mentors. The first one was a really tough guy, simply "The researcher of his subject" what brought me a lot of pressure when I first arrived in the lab. He taught me how to discern good and bad science, to write grants, to do networking with other researchers and specially how to handle "difficult" people like him! After he retired the lab was taken by the co-PI that is not specifically of our area of research. So basically I became bossless, or putting in better words I started working independently. Of course, this new PD mentor still helped me a lot, specially improving my writing and my confidence in myself! Now I am the one more experienced with in vivo experiments and have to decide most of the experiments by myself.

    That made me think that I feel so ready for a TT position! Plan to start applying soon, wish me luck!

  • phagenista says:

    The number one thing I got from my UG mentor was a sense of what a happy, relaxed and productive lab could be -- and how to be a scientist with kids and without losing your sanity. When I was in situations that were dysfunctional in grad school or as a postdoc, I had the courage/knowledge to leave them or endure them without becoming a clone of a stressed out scientist.

    I love my grad school mentor, but he was batting cleanup after nearly four years with my awesome UG mentor.

  • pyrope says:

    UG: Taught me that research could actually be a career. Handed me ridiculous opportunities practically on a silver platter.

    GM: How to be independent. Taught me some nifty tools and gave me the freedom to learn others.

    PDM: How to look at problems from a totally different perspective. Taught me to think big. Such an amazing person, completely shifted and broadened my science.

  • Jo Thorn says:

    UGM (only one so far!) taught me to be excited about science. His enthusiasm about his research is infectious and he really knows how to reel you (me) in to one of his projects, she said four years later... He also made me realize that you can still have a research career at a teaching university. Sacrifices are made, of course, but it's possible and it's the kind of career some scientists want. He does not sacrifice his family for his job, which is something I appreciate, even though I do not have a desire to have a family. He's helped my self-esteem as a student and researcher. I haven't always felt competent or capable, but he reminds me that I am incredible. He gave me so many opportunities to fail (important in science), succeed, and to learn from those experiences, and I'll always be appreciative of that. I want to pursue a career in academia, and have the opportunity to mentor students and get them excited about science (any science, not just mine) because of him.

  • BrknScience says:

    Most important thing I learned, what not to do. Seriously.

  • Much like pyrope...
    UG: confidence
    GM: independence
    PD: flair

  • odyssey says:

    UM: Didn't really have one.
    GM: He taught me how not to be a mentor and little else. Seriously.
    PM: How to be a scientist, how to be a mentor, how to write, how to plan out and put together a grant proposal,... Pretty much everything I needed to get where I am now. It was a long postdoc.

  • Nice question.

    Undergrad mentor: Passion for teaching and research, and the excitement of doing something worthwhile.

    PhD mentor: Passion for research and cool demeanor in face of adversity. Also research skills, grants writing skills, and playing some politics in academia.

    Post-Doc mentor; learned how to write (like really write), diplomacy and politics in research and academia. One thing that I didn't learn any where else (and am still learning) is his ability of pursue people to do what he is thinking at the back of his mind, yet making them believe that they got this conclusion all by themselves ! I hope to do that one day as good as he does it.

  • drugmonkey says:

    UG1: The study of behavior is a science

    UG2: People might just pay you to be a scientist

    Grad: Totally hand's off is bad for trainees, as much as they might relish it at first. Also, career advancement is not by comparison to the last few people they advanced before you.

    PostD1: The NIH Grant game has losers and also those who cannot bear it anymore despite succeeding.

    PostD2: How to be a fucking scientist who plans to endure under grant-funded reality.

  • Whoosh says:

    PhD mentor: he taught me that a good way to teach and motivate others is to put a lot of trust in their abilities upfront and to give them great opportunities.

    PostDoc mentor: from him I learned how to wrap up my achievements in a positive and self-confident way and that it is surprising how much I can achieve if I just dare jumping in the cold water.

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