As a budding scientist, you are excited, curious and maybe even a bit overwhelmed by the world of science. Yet, you are eager to learn and contribute. How do you acquire the skills needed to be a prolific independent researcher? How do you find someone who can mentor you?
Your research mentor will be the critical person to help launch your independent career. For PhD candidates, the mentor can impact your ability to complete a PhD program and career trajectory for years to come. Outside of academia, mentors can impact your ability to grow and excel. A “good fit” mentor not only offers training for you to be a productive and independent scientist but also serves as a coach — providing inspiration, helping you navigate difficulties, advising on career choices and ultimately building you up.
My goal as a mentor is to train my students to be better than me. I hope that my trainees can develop the necessary skills and also insights to excel in a career that best fits them.
However, not all senior investigators are the right fit for every trainee or considered a good mentor, despite their career excellence. The wrong mentor can delay your career, dampen your enthusiasm, or potentially drive you out of science altogether. This happens more often than one might know. So how do you find a mentor who is right for you?
1. Examine your research interests and personal habits closely.
It takes two for a “right fit.” Before going on the hunt to find a mentor, you must first examine yourself. Be honest.
First, what area of research do you want to go into? And don’t just focus on the cool factor. “Artificial Intelligence technology is all the rage now, so I need to get into that” is not a good enough reason. A research career is a very long path that takes dedication and grit. Research trends also go in and out of fashion. Instead, think about whether you find yourself enjoying studying small scale, like molecular biology, or more of the bigger picture, such as systems or physiology? Or do you want to develop tangible products rather than understanding how a disease develops? Do you enjoy coding (which includes troubleshooting!) for hours? Do you like figuring things out with your hands in a lab? If so, what sort of things? Do you like animal work or would you rather optimize the imagery of cells or tissues by microscopy? If you don’t know, you may consider gaining some experience through volunteering in labs or doing short internships. Having direct experience, even for a few hours, will often give you much more insight than reading about a field.
Next, be honest with yourself about your personal habits. For learning, do you prefer a hands-on mentor who tells you what to do and checks on your progress often? Or do you find that a bit overbearing and prefer having freedom to test out your own approach with infrequent check-ins? Are you very regimented or do you find yourself more laid back? If the latter, do you need someone to help you become more regimented, or do you want to continue having a more laid-back approach? If you are a rigid thinker, do you want a mentor to help you think out of the box? These are only a small fraction of questions you should ask yourself before you go on a path to selecting a mentor.
2. Narrow down a list of potential mentors in your selected field(s) of interest and don’t hesitate to reach out to them directly.
Identifying the right research institution for you is beyond the scope of this blog but assuming you have identified your field of interest and looked through research programs on institutional webpages, you should do some digging to learn about individual labs. Many principal investigators have websites where you can learn about the research and the people working in the lab.
After you have compiled a list of potential labs you may want to join, you should contact the principal investigator via email (usually listed on the lab or institutional website) to inform them of your interest. Usually people are very busy so it is important to keep the email to-the-point and professional. Address the email with “Professor or Dr.” and introduce yourself briefly, why you are interested in their research, indicate any previous research experiences you’ve obtained, and inquire if you may speak on the phone or in person further to learn more. You may consider attaching your resume or CV as well.
It is important to reach out sooner rather than later (but only after you’ve gained a good understanding of the lab through online research) because you do not know whether the investigator has the capacity to take you on as a trainee. They may have already taken on a few students and do not have a vacancy in the lab. Or maybe the lab is more computational than you think, which you can only know through conversation. These things are important to find out as early as possible.
3. In addition to meeting with the potential mentor, ask to meet other personnel in the laboratory.
Getting to know other people in the lab will help you learn more about the culture, as well as gain insights into all the different projects everyone is working on. You will also learn about how lab responsibilities are broken down. For example, is everyone managing their own animal colonies or is there a designated animal person? Does everyone manage their own purchasing or lab supply inventory or is there a designated lab manager for these responsibilities? Are there multiple people working on the same project, or does everyone run their own projects? Are the roles hierarchical? Are technicians or staff scientists available for technical help, or does it seem like everyone learns their own set of skills necessary for their projects? Do individuals specialize in the lab? Do students serve mainly as “hands” or do they also play an active role in designing experiments?
The above questions are only a fraction of the type of questions you should be wondering about when observing a lab. Other inquiries may be: what professional development activities do trainees engage in? For example, do trainees have opportunities to write training grant applications? What about attending scientific conferences or seminars? How often are trainees expected to give presentations and in what format — in front of the lab, department, retreats or conferences? When you are trying to find a research mentor, you should look for someone who is keen to help you develop yourself as a scientist holistically.
Finally, you should find out where previous trainees went on for their careers after leaving the lab. Have PhD students gone off to do academic postdocs, obtained industry positions or other types of jobs? Have postdocs succeeded in obtaining an independent faculty position or their desired scientist position in industry? Importantly, do you sense any potential red flags from previous trainees, such as conflicts or perhaps a lack of support from the mentor? If so, it might be helpful to seek more understanding about that. You want to make sure you can succeed in the laboratory and not end up in the same position as someone else who may have had a less than desirable experience.
4. Finally, assess the resources (size of lab, equipment, institution, grant funding) and determine potential fit.
By now, you probably have narrowed down your list to less than three potential mentors. You probably already had good conversations with your potential mentor(s) as well as their lab members. You may have even been invited to give a presentation or have gone through a more formal interview process. Your feelings are developing, and now you are wondering if you should trust your gut instinct or your thoughts.
Aside from the top three exercises, you should step back and assess the resources that would be available to you to conduct your research. Is the lab big or small? If the lab is small, do lab members have access to common or “core” facilities for technical help? Do they collaborate? If not, has the lab been sufficient enough? For example, some labs or fields do not need to be big to be productive. What about equipment? Is research limited to the lab’s equipment or are there shared resources? If shared, is the sharing easy to manage or plan for? What about the institution? If you would like to conduct clinical research sometime in your training, does the institution have clinical trial capabilities in your particular research interest? Is the institution as a whole reputable in research? What about funding? Does the potential mentor have enough money to sponsor you for several years? You do not want to be in a position where the lab runs out of money after you have joined for only a year. Are you expected to obtain your own funding for research as a trainee?
After you have assessed all these factors, you are now more informed about the fit of the potential mentor and lab. There are probably many more factors not mentioned in this blog article that you may need to consider. However, you can now see that not all mentors, labs, institutions, or even research topics are a good fit for every emerging scientist. Finding the right research mentor actually takes a lot of self-understanding, exploration, and reaching out to others before beginning this journey. However, the effort is well worth it because once you have found a research mentor that is willing to sponsor you and help develop you as a scientist, your career will only gain momentum and you will have a great feeling of fulfillment.