Once you get there or think you have....mentoring to pass on the torch
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- Fetzer, J. Anal Bioanal Chem (2003) 377: 1. doi:10.1007/s00216-003-2118-4
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In academia the training of younger scientists is an inherent core part of the system. The purpose of a graduate school program is to perform high levels of research while utilizing graduate students. This helps the students learn how to be beginning scientists, carrying on their own careers. This is the first phase of education for a scientist and ends upon receipt of the masters or doctorate degree.
The next phase is a much longer one, whether in academia or not. This is the "learning to be an eminent scientist" phase. The purpose of many of these essays is to help in the areas that need to be done in order to succeed in this phase. Are there other resources for the young scientist seeking guidance in getting through this phase? After replying with a resounding Yes! I must say what the most obvious and common one is. This is looking for mentors among one's more experienced colleagues, those who have gone this route before you. That in itself is the topic of another future essay – choosing your mentors. For this one the other side will be presented, that is "How to be a mentor and why it is rewarding".
As far as the how-to-be part, it can be very easy for most scientists. Giving opinions and advice are almost natural for the person who thinks analytically. Looking at facts, assessing them, coming up with explanations, and coming up with solutions and plans for the future are all parts of the work of being an analytical chemist. These all involve coming up with opinions and ideas and giving them to others. If we do this as part of our work, then doing it for the benefit of others in their careers is not that different.
So the answer to the question "Is being a mentor difficult?" I would answer that it is very surprisingly easy. It happens normally just because we each gain experience and knowledge during our careers and we also are normally asked for our opinions as part of being analytical chemists.
I think for many people this also happens almost unconsciously as they answer the questions of others about how certain things were dealt with. In the early years of a career these queries will mainly be on smaller issues, such as dealing with procurement of a new instrument or how to get approval for a conference trip or what to say in certain types of presentations in order to be most effective or dozens of other specific topics. Answering these is easy, but gets the individual into the frame of mind and accepting being a resource.
As a researcher grows in experience, others will seek his or her opinion on other issues. This is particularly true if the "senior" person has had direct experience with the topics that are being asked about or if she or he has an open image. That is an image in which others perceive that talking with someone is not unwelcome, will be kept in confidence, will be listened to, and will yield ideas and perspectives that help in the situation. Each of these is important in themselves.
Most people think of the last one as being of paramount and almost sole importance. The others, however, set up real communication and dialogue as well as a comfort level is needed on the "junior" person's part to ask for guidance. Asking for guidance is not always an easy matter, especially if the issue is a personal one, a difficult one, or a major one. Thoughts of changing jobs—to another organization within a company, into another career area or profession, or to another company—are ones that many people will only discuss in strict confidence. A listening recipient makes the other more comfortable by showing real interest and concern.
Is mentoring time consuming? Very often not is the answer. Many of these discussions take only minutes and can be done in bits and pieces over a period of time. More in depth conversations can readily be done both in the workplace and outside of it. Time spent talking over breakfast or lunch or dinner can be very good for mentoring. For those with whom it works better, having coffee or drinks after work also is one way of having the time and venue for a longer mentoring conversation.
What are the rewards in being a mentor? There are several that I can readily list. First, it is always satisfying to feel that others value your opinions and knowledge. Being thought of as wise and a source of guidance reflects on one's own successes and the good points of personality. Being regarded by others as a good source of information and opinion is an acknowledgement of one's career successes. It is also gratifying after the fact when one who has received them returns with thanks for the useful advice.
Another reward is the feeling of satisfaction at returning something back. Each of us has been mentored and guided by others in our careers. A way of acknowledging those that helped us is to help others in a similar fashion. There is an inherent continuum in our profession of mentoring that goes back for decades and decades. Each of us is the end link in a chain that may even go back for centuries of science as a profession. So in addition to the altruism of helping another who is "where I was years ago", there is also the added sense of being part of this continuing chain.
Seeing other scientists take one's advice and use it in progressing in their careers is also a reward. This is inherently built in for a graduate school advisor who proudly acknowledges that certain scientists are former students. The same sense of pride can infuse anyone who mentors other scientists and sees them succeed later.
Finally, from a more personal perspective mentoring makes one think of good ideas and reflect on one's own career. All too often we take ourselves for granted, either through humility or familiarity. In describing her or his own experiences, a person can often realize what good things were done over the course of the career. Most people focus on the most recent accomplishments or a few past high-water achievements, seldom remembering the bulk of the good work done.
This may at first seem to be an odd situation since it would seem that an individual must know best her or his own accomplishments, but human nature creates selectivity. Try listing your own dozen best accomplishments. If you are like most people, it will be heavily weighed towards the most recent years. Then think of what you did for earlier years. A lot of good work has typically faded from one's own memory. Mentoring often brings out similar results of recollecting a lot of less remembered accomplishments that resurface while one passed on advice.
In summary, mentoring is fairly easy, not a major burden on either time or effort, and has both personal rewards and benefits to our profession.