January is National Mentoring Month, which was founded by the Harvard School of Public Health. The National Mentoring Partnership was conceived to raise awareness about mentoring programs, and to recruit people to serve as role models for youth in their communities. Mentors make a positive impact on youth’s lives, and research shows that “mentoring works”. A mentor can improve a student’s school attendance record, chance of going to college and attitude about learning. Mentors are needed at every step from grade school to college and beyond, to connect individuals with the resources that they need to achieve their goals and to help them realize their full potential. Anyone can be an effective mentor — it just takes a caring attitude and a desire to guide your mentee towards success in life.
Why should you care about mentoring?
Serving as a mentor is a great way to pay it forward and to honor any mentors who guided you through your own education or career path. From a professional development standpoint, part of an early-career scientist’s training is to learn how to manage your own lab or team in the future. If you have an advanced degree, you are likely expected to take on management responsibilities from the start. In general, people are more productive when they are effectively mentored, so it will be to your advantage to learn early on how to be a good mentor.
In addition, employers often look for evidence of teaching and outreach experiences, especially for employees (e.g., faculty, lab managers and research staff) who will take on supervisory roles. Academia wants to see teaching and research mentoring experiences to ensure that you will be a good mentor to their students. Outside academia, hiring managers want to see evidence of interpersonal skills and the ability to manage teams. Spending a few hours a week to mentor a student or to participate in outreach work can provide that needed experience to help you advance your career.
How can you be an effective mentor?
Although matching lab coats may seem like a clever idea, creating your own clone may not be the best mentoring approach. Why would you want everyone to be just like you? Mentoring must be tailored to each mentee’s needs, which depends on their personal interests, skills and values. In a recent American Chemical Society webinar on mentoring relationships, Dr. Donna Dean of the Association for Women in Science presented her top rules for being an effective mentor: 1) Be yourself in a truthful manner; 2) Never embarrass or make your mentee feel awkward; 3) Be aware that your actions will have effects (positive or negative) on your mentee; 4) Keep a good sense of humor; and 5) Teach your mentee the unwritten rules of your field (e.g., how to choose the best journal for a publication).
Unfortunately, mentor-training programs may be overlooked as necessary training for students or postdocs, and thus, the “mini-me” mentoring approach is common in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. However, if more researchers take the time to learn to be an effective mentor, then a gradual trend towards a mentoring culture will take place in STEM. The best way to learn mentoring is to practice through work experiences and/or volunteer opportunities. There are also a number of online resources and mentor-training programs readily available.
Where can you find mentoring opportunities?
Teaching and mentoring research students in academic laboratories are common ways to get experience. If these options are not available to you, there are still many opportunities to get involved with STEM outreach and mentoring. I brainstormed a short list to get you pointed in the right direction. Now, it is your turn to take the initiative and reach out to these groups to offer your help. In the end, mentoring is training in disguise because you will gain vital transferable skills for your future career, while helping to inspire future generations of STEM professionals!
• Offer to help your research supervisor in your lab or office;
• If teaching opportunities are unavailable to you in your current institution, network with faculty at local community colleges to find out more about adjunct teaching positions;
• Find student groups at local colleges or your alumni institutions and offer to present a guest lecture, or to share career advice with the students;
• Get involved with groups at your institution (e.g., postdoc association) to serve as a peer mentor to incoming researchers and to plan outreach events.
• Talk to the communications department or outreach office at your institution to find out about any outreach initiatives ongoing that may need volunteers;
• Contact local community groups (e.g., Girl Scouts or Boys and Girls Club) to assist with education outreach programs or to mentor a student;
• Check out local STEM education initiatives and organizations to inquire about volunteer opportunities in your area;
• Contact K-12 science and math teachers at local schools to offer help with curriculum development or tutoring services;
• Locate museums in the area who are looking for volunteers to staff special events or design exhibits;
• Join an online mentoring network. Examples include Million Women Mentors and MentorNet;
• Find out if the professional organizations to which you belong have started any mentoring programs or outreach projects. You can also look for volunteer networks through the American Association for the Advancement of Science volunteer site;
• Search the database at AllForGood.org for volunteer opportunities by geographic location.
Additional resources on mentoring
Research Mentor Training at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
MENTOR Program Resources and Training
Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Math and Engineering Mentoring Resources
Editorial Note: This article is a modified version of one that appeared in Cognizance, the newsletter of the Oak Ridge Postdoc Association.