Mentors are advisors, people with career experience willing to share their knowledge; supporters, people who give emotional and moral encouragement; tutors, people who give specific feedback on one’s performance; masters, in the sense of employers to whom one is apprenticed; sponsors, sources of information about and aid in obtaining opportunities; and models of identity, of the kind of person one should be to be an academic.”
— Morris Zelditch, 1990
What is a mentor?
In broad terms, a mentor is an experienced person who takes a special interest in fostering career development and professional growth in a less experienced person. Mentors are individuals who have been there and are willing and eager to share their life experiences, knowledge and insight with those starting along that path. They can provide valuable advice on how to gain the most from graduate and postdoctoral experiences. A mentor can offer guidance and support on topics related to career advancement, including grant writing, publications and teaching strategies, but also on other topics, such as balancing a career with a personal life and family or changing career paths. They are often the first link in building a network with fellow researchers. They can also assist in furthering the development of intangible areas of professional growth, like professional image and demeanor. A good mentor serves as a coach, advisor, motivator, confidant, teacher, critic and role model for their protégé. The relationship should be honest, open and direct, but also encouraging and supportive.
In academics, a faculty advisor often serves as a mentor. However, not all advisors make effective mentors.
As discussed at length the in AHA Mentoring handbook (see below), a mentoring relationship is a professional, but also a personal relationship. It implies a strong emotional bond between the two parties. The mentor often has an emotional investment and genuine interest in the protégé. This differs from an advisor, who may provide information and resources, but without the deep invested emotions of a mentor. A mentoring relationship develops over an extended period, during which a student's needs and the nature of the relationship tend to change. A mentor will try to be aware of these changes and vary the degree and type of attention, help, advice, information and encouragement that he or she provides.
Characteristics of a good mentor:
- Has a genuine interest in helping others and sharing their own life experiences
- Can communicate effectively to provide honest and constructive criticism
- Is open and willing to learn from their protégés and sees the benefit of a mentoring relationship
- Has the time and accessibility to meet regularly to discuss current progress and future projects, but also available for impromptu meetings related to publications, grants, meetings or presentations
- Is an achiever in their own career, setting and striving to reach lofty goals; this drive for achievement motivates and inspires their protégé to do the same
- Has earned respect from peers in their organization, community and field of research
Roles of a mentor:
- Encourages networking and aids the protégé in making professional contacts to build professional relationships
- Enhances professional visibility and advocates for the protégé during professional activities both within and beyond the immediate university community
- Advises on effective strategies for work and life balance
- Analyzes key strengths and weaknesses, and provides support and resources to help improve the weakness
- Knows, accepts and respects the career and research goals of the protégé
- Continually nurtures the self-sufficiency of their protégé
The following online resources provide further details on developing successful mentor-protégé relationships and outline the benefits of mentoring that are shared by the mentor, protégé and the community. They provide advice on what to look for in a mentor and how to approach one to become a mentor, characteristics of a good mentor and key roles and responsibilities of a mentor. The protégé should not expect to passively receive mentoring, but should instead play an active role in seeking and fostering such relationships. Practical strategies for gaining the most from a mentor and key characteristics of a protégé are also outlined.
This handbook was written by the AHA Early Career Investigator/Clinician Task Force, in recognition of the importance of the mentor-protégé relationship, especially for individuals early their careers. Based on experiences from AHA events including the Epidemiology Ten-Day Seminar and Hypertension summer school, the AHA Mentoring handbook focuses on general and specific aspects of the mentor-protégé relationship, concerns for clinical science, basic science, population sciences, and women and minorities in the areas of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
The handbook begins by describing the mentor-protégé relationship and also explains the emotional bond inherent in the mentoring relationship and the differences between a mentor and an advisor. It also provides advice for how to choose an appropriate mentor, someone who a protégé can respect and trust, and someone who can be accessible to their needs and be their advocate in the University and beyond.
Tips and guidelines for both the mentors and protégés are provided to aid in creating an open, honest and productive relationship. The handbook discusses the protégé's responsibilities to determine their own career goals and aspirations, and responsibilities to work hard, respect their mentor’s time and obligations, and accept feedback and criticism in order to improve.
The handbook describes a good mentor as one who is aware of the protégé’s long-term career and personal goals, assisting them in achieving these goals, while providing appropriate and useful feedback on skills, successes and failures.
The handbook provides specialized advice for those pursuing research in the fields of basic, clinical and population-based science. Each section discusses special concerns for the mentor, protégé and institution within the research field, as well as considerations for career advancement, opportunities and pitfalls one may encounter.
The Department of Medicine’s Faculty Development Web site offers information and resources to facilitate the mentoring experience. Included are practical suggestions and advice for both the mentor and protégé.
Provides a more general, rather than academic view of mentoring. This resource includes different mentorship styles and strategies along with a discussion on ways to avoid or overcome obstacles that often detour a mentoring relationship.
Provides advice on issues relevant to mentoring and information on mentoring for both mentors and protégés. Features include helpful guidelines for creating and maintaining successful mentoring relationships and articles related to mentoring strategies.
MentorNet is a nonprofit e-mentoring network that provides highly motivated protégés with one-on-one, e-mail-based mentoring relationships with mentors from industry, government and higher education in the fields of science and engineering. MentorNet also provides a web-based discussion forum on various topics such as careers, graduate school and work-life balance as well as resources on mentoring, diversity and careers in science and engineering.
Articles of interest:
A series of articles found on ScienceCareers.org that answer common questions about career choices and mentoring by multiple professionals at different stages in their careers.
What Protégés Bring to the Equation, Mary Blitzer Field, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine
NIH K awards
The NIH values the importance of new investigators in the biomedical research field and holds a strong interest in the training and research funding of these new investigators. In order to facilitate the development of trainees in to independent researchers, the NIH has created the Pathways to Independence Program, which aims to facilitate investigators in receiving R01 awards earlier in their careers.
The NIH recognizes that the transition from the post-doctoral trainee to independent scientist is a difficult one to make. To assist new investigators in this transition at an earlier age and enhance the probability of success in obtaining independent research support, they have created the Pathway to Independence Awards (K99/R00).
The program is an opportunity for promising postdoctoral scientists to receive mentored and independent research support from the same award. It is expected that the transition from the mentors to independent phases will be continuous in time. The initial one- to two-year mentored phase allows investigators to obtain additional training, complete research, publish results and bridge to an independent research position. Following the mentored stage, the individual may request up to three years of support to conduct research as an independent scientist and apply for an NIH Investigator-Initiated (R01) grant. These awards are offered by all NIH institutes.
Beginning in fall 2006, the NIH will issue 150–200 awards each year and expects to issue similar numbers for five years.
A variety of career development awards are available to enhance the career development and provide protected time for researchers. There are separate awards for clinical investigators who have received a health-professional doctorate and basic scientists who hold a research doctorate. Most of these awards support individuals that have completed training and have accepted or are ready for a faculty position. Most K awards are for those still in the mentored phase of their career; however, some K awards are for newly independent researchers or for those who have established careers and are now looking for protected time to mentor others.