Rachel C. Drew, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Exercise and Health Sciences, University of Massachusetts Boston
As a relatively new assistant professor in the Department of Exercise and Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Boston, there were innumerable things that I needed to learn to smooth the transition into my tenure-track position. One of the most notable, and significant areas not covered in my doctoral and postdoctoral training was how to be a successful mentor to trainees and students working in my research lab. Having earned my bachelor’s degree in sport and exercise science and my PhD in exercise physiology at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, followed by completion of my postdoctoral training and a short time as a research associate at Penn State Hershey in Pennsylvania, I learned a great number of things about conducting research. However, I received little training about mentoring. It was not until I was thrust into the position of running my own independent research lab as an assistant professor that I was suddenly very aware that I felt ill-prepared to successfully mentor others. I had only just been a mentee myself, and now I was expected to help shape fully formed trainees who work with me in my lab with no obvious training? “Fake it until you make it” certainly sprang to mind.
After attending many professional development sessions and workshops, and reading numerous articles on mentoring, I learned there are many things that go into being not just a mentor but a good mentor. This article shares what I have learned about how to be a successful mentor in the two years that I have had this seemingly huge responsibility placed on my shoulders. I do not profess to be the best mentor—since it takes years of mentoring experience to achieve that status, but I have learned several nuggets of wisdom. I hope these lessons will benefit other researchers also undergoing this transition.
On the surface, mentoring may seem like a fairly straightforward process of a person with experience or expertise in their respective field providing advice to another person in the same or similar field to help them succeed. However, successful mentoring involves a combination of factors that culminate in a mutually beneficial relationship between the mentor and the mentee, one in which they both gain something positive from their partnership.
These mutually beneficial relationships can take the form of formal or informal mentor-mentee relationships. Formal partnerships can be formed through targeted programs created by professional societies that match interested mentees with willing mentors, which also provide great networking opportunities. Formal partnerships can also be structured partnerships within academic institutions or industrial companies that pair a junior person with a more senior person within the same department, college, campus, university, or company. These relationships can provide helpful inside knowledge relevant to the respective institution or company. However, the expertise of the senior person may not fully align with the specific field in which the junior person is working, because it is the institution or company that brings the mentor and mentee together rather than the same research or teaching interests.
Informal partnerships can be formed through meeting people at conferences and meetings, often through introductions made by colleagues with an existing relationship with the other person. You may also meet potential mentors at workshops and other networking events. I have been introduced by colleagues to numerous people at conferences, and some of those introductions have grown into current research collaborations, an invaluable asset to my research program. I also met a graduate student at a conference poster session who is now a PhD student working in my lab! I now introduce him to people at conferences and other events, so he may benefit from those introductions at some point, thus continuing the networking cycle.
In a mentor-mentee relationship, knowing what will be necessary for the mentee to succeed requires a conversation about what the mentee wants to achieve. This conversation should happen at the beginning of the relationship. The mentor can then draw on their experiences in their specific field to help guide the mentee in appropriate ways. Typically in a successful mentor-mentee relationship, the mentee provides the energy, and the mentor can help steer the mentee in the right direction, much like a human equivalent of a car engine and steering wheel. This effective mentor-mentee partnership results in a “win-win” for both people. The mentee can learn from the advice and support provided by the mentor as an experienced person in their field to help them succeed, and the mentor can help newer people in their field grow and become successful, serving their professional community as well as gaining personal satisfaction. Both of these successes contribute to the advancement of the respective field, highlighting the importance of successful mentoring.
The relationship between mentor and mentee is dependent on many factors, such as the academic level of both individuals, the nature of the institution or company in which they work, and their respective personalities. It can also be influenced by both individuals’ cultural backgrounds, gender, age, race, religion, sexuality, gender identity, physical ability, socioeconomic status, and other factors. Knowingly or unknowingly, any of these factors can affect this relationship, so it is important to understand that individuals’ implicit biases against certain groups of people exist (as well as explicit biases, in some cases) and that we recognize these biases rather than ignoring them or pretending they do not exist. There is a growing awareness of the need for diversification of the scientific workforce that is leading to the creation of initiatives aimed at recruiting and retaining people in traditionally underrepresented groups in science, such as the National Institute of Health’s (NIH’s) Scientific Workforce Diversity Office (https://diversity.nih.gov). According to NIH, traditionally underrepresented groups include women, certain racial groups including black people or African-Americans, Hispanics or Latinos, American Indians or Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, people with disabilities, people from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, and people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer. Scientific progress is at its best when viewpoints from multiple different backgrounds and experiences are voiced and heard. Mentoring is a crucial area of science in which individuals from all backgrounds and experiences can be included and starting early in their careers. Mentor-mentee relationships do not always come without their challenges. There can be differences in personalities that make it more difficult for the partnership to be a fruitful one. There can be time constraints, particularly for the mentor, who is typically more established in their field than the mentee and often has other commitments that require more of their time or more immediate attention. The mentee may be seeking advice on a particular topic that a specific mentor cannot provide. Some of these obstacles can be avoided or at least managed by having a conversation at the beginning of the relationship about what the mentee wants to achieve and how they envisage the mentor helping them. If the mentor does not have the necessary experience or expertise, or time realistically to offer support, they should try to redirect the mentee to someone who may be able to help. Time constraints brought about by commitments at different times of the academic or calendar year can lead to fluctuations in mentors’—and mentees’—availability. Communicating known periods of limited or no availability from both sides helps mitigate or alleviate situations in which one side of the partnership does not feel like the other is responding in a timely manner. A quick email can go a long way to keeping things afloat!
As mentees rise through the ranks of training, it can be typical for them to look for one mentor who will satisfy all their academic needs, but it is not usually that straightforward! There may be the occasional superhero-mentor who provides mentees with exactly the advice they are seeking at the precise time they are seeking it. If this is the case for you, congratulations! These encyclopedic mentors are likely few and far between, however, given the vast array of academic needs that mentees have. No two mentors or mentees are the same, and therefore neither are any mentor-mentee relationships. Mentees should therefore seek multiple mentors for their different needs, whether academic, technical, or another area. Having a smorgasbord of mentors will enable mentees to seek advice on a specific topic at a certain time from someone who will be able to help them with it at that time. Making and maintaining these relationships with others in their field also increases mentees’ professional network, which can provide greater visibility of their work and open doors to receive invitations to review manuscripts for specific journals and present at professional meetings and workshops. For some people who are in the early stages of their career, simply the thought of contacting an established person in their field to ask for something is so intimidating that it can cause them to break out in a cold sweat. However, most people are often flattered to be asked and willing to share their experience or expertise if they are able, since they have been in the shoes of the junior person at one time or another. Therefore, a well-crafted email clearly stating your position, experience, and what you are seeking advice on could lead to a new prosperous connection, as well as other potential beneficial opportunities down the road. As Geordies from the Newcastle area in the north-east of England close to where I grew up would say, “Shy bairns get nowt,” or, for those who need a translation, “Shy kids get nothing!”
There are numerous professional development opportunities available for both mentors and mentees that provide information and useful resources to help maximize efforts for successful mentoring. A great example is the National Research Mentoring Network, an NIH initiative aimed at enhancing the diversity of the NIH-funded research workforce (https://nrmnet.net). I regularly attend the monthly sessions, which are run by the Office for Faculty Development at the University of Massachusetts Boston. They have offered great insight into various issues faced by both mentors and mentees, and effective strategies to overcome potential barriers to improve the success of mentor-mentee relationships. Because the University of Massachusetts Boston has such a diverse student body—with a population of 33 percent underrepresented minorities and 56 percent first-generation students—resources such as this are fantastic for increasing the effectiveness of mentor-mentee partnerships.
Drawing on my personal experiences and insights gleaned from various professional development sessions, workshops, and mentoring articles, I’ve compiled the following nuggets of wisdom to be an effective mentor and mentee.
Five Ways to be an Effective Mentor
- Start with a conversation. Talk with your mentees to find out what their goals are and do so at the beginning of your relationship. Gaining a clear picture of what your mentees aspire to achieve and why will allow you to shape your advice and support to best meet their needs or suggest someone else who may be better able to do so.
- Meet your mentees where they are (figuratively speaking). Have an awareness of where your mentees are as far as academic level and experience to date, so you can provide more tailored advice to support them to achieve their goals in ways that will be achievable for them. In other words, be the wheel that steers the car as each particular mentee provides the work of the engine!
- Use your experience to provide advice for your mentees on an individual basis. No two mentees are the same; each will bring their own set of interests, expectations, motivations, and personal characteristics. Mentors should be open to responding in ways that provide mentees with the tools they can use to flourish.
- Create a “safe space” for your mentees. Promote a culture of openness and dialogue by providing a “safe space” for your mentees in which they can feel comfortable discussing challenges—academic or personal—that they are facing and that may be affecting their academic performance. Although mentors are not expected to help with mentees’ personal issues, you may be able to point them in the direction of appropriate support services on campus or elsewhere that may benefit them and improve their academic performance. The power dynamic that can exist between a person in a position of more authority and a trainee can be felt quite profoundly by mentees, which can be a barrier to open dialogue. The onus is on you to diffuse any potential power inequalities by conversing with your experience rather than your power. As the person in a position of more authority, you may feel comfortable and not appreciate this power inequality, but given this greater “power,” you have the opportunity to minimize this inequality to bridge any potential barriers between yourself and your mentees.
- Tell your mentees what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. It is in your position as a mentor to give your mentees realistic advice about their progress, which at times they may not want to hear. However, this feedback will help them on their academic journey by turning challenges into opportunities from which they can grow and develop their various academic skills, such as time management, scientific writing ability, communication, motivation, and attention to detail.
Five Ways to be an Effective Mentee
- Communication is key. Set up preferred communication methods with your mentors early in your relationship to maximize effective communication from the beginning. Your mentors will likely have a preference on how best to communicate with them, based on their time commitments and availability, so ask them what their preference is and use this type of communication if they do not mention it themselves. When mentors receive communications in a way that is agreeable to them, they are more likely to respond in a positive way!
- Be the engine of the relationship. Approach your mentors when you need to, bearing in mind the type of communication that you have set up between the two of you. Mentors are often busy with tasks that require more of their attention at certain times, but if you want something from your mentor, the emphasis is on you to ask. This does not necessarily mean to pester your mentors with questions for which you should be expected to search for the answers elsewhere, but more that it is up to you to speak up if you need something that only a specific mentor can provide.
- Be open to constructive feedback. One of the most important aspects of a junior person’s training is learning how to improve, which often means learning from their mistakes. When feedback is provided with the intention of being helpful to you, receive the feedback graciously and openly so you can use it to improve on the specific task at hand. Remember that no-one is perfect, and everyone has traversed through similar formative experiences in their training, including your mentors. Effective mentors want you to succeed and will use their academic and personal experiences to guide you toward that success through this constructive process.
- Become comfortable having conversations with your mentors. Your mentors are likely to be in positions of more authority than you, which can be intimidating to mentees, but your relationship will be most effective if you communicate your needs clearly. Effective mentors should support you in an open and constructive way and allow you to express your needs, rather than unfairly exerting their power over you.
- Seek multiple mentors for different, specific needs. Most often, mentors can provide advice in one, sometimes two, areas, whereas you will likely have several areas in which you would like to receive support. Although occasionally a mentor may be able to provide advice on all the topics you need, typically having numerous mentors will provide you with a greater level of support. Your needs will also likely change as you progress through your training and up the professional ranks, so it is particularly important to have many people to whom you can turn to answer those burning questions that will arise at various stages of your career. Having this larger support system will better enable you to overcome potential obstacles and ultimately be more successful.
Mentoring may seem to be about the expertise that can be passed down from an experienced mentor to a mentee who is looking to grow and succeed, but successful mentoring is contingent on the two individuals being able to meet in the middle to create a “win-win” situation. Meeting people where they are, both as mentees and mentors, benefits those involved, as well as science as a whole. Although I have found several approaches that have worked for me as a mentor in my early career stage, I know it is important to continue to learn, grow, and adapt to new situations. Lifelong learners make the best mentors, because their best is constantly getting better.
Rachel Drew Biography
Rachel Drew is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Exercise and Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Boston. The focus of her research program is the nervous system control of the cardiovascular system during exercise. Specifically, her neurovascular exercise physiology research involves examination of the effects of healthy aging, race, and exercise training on blood pressure control and blood flow to the kidneys during exercise. Rachel earned her BSc in Sport and Exercise Science and PhD in Exercise Physiology under the supervision of Dr. Mike White, PhD at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. She then completed her postdoctoral training under the mentorship of Dr. Larry Sinoway, MD, followed by three years as a Research Associate, at Penn State Hershey in Pennsylvania, USA. Rachel is a member of the American Physiological Society and received a Postdoctoral and Early Career Research Recognition Award from the Neural Control and Autonomic Regulation section of the American Physiological Society in 2014. She is also a member of the Physiological Society in the United Kingdom, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the American Heart Association.