Career Corner

Career Corner: Mentoring in Career Development

Peter Dedon(Pete Dedon is away, so Gerald Wogan is filling in.)

The term “mentoring” has been used in countless ways, but it is widely understood to embody the concept of giving guidance and advice to another person. Consistent with this use of the term, effective mentoring involves an enduring relationship in which a more experienced individual provides support, assistance and guidance to one who is less experienced. Mentors can help their protégés endure academic, career, social, or personal crises and are especially important in the education and career development of scientists. Informal (sometimes called “natural”) mentoring begins early in the educational experience and continues through successive undergraduate, graduate, postgraduate, and professional stages. In various ways, all teachers can (and many do) serve as mentors in promoting and enhancing the intellectual development of their students. In addition to formal advisor-student interactions relating to academic requirements, a continuing, informal mentor-mentee relationship with one or more experienced individuals in related fields can be highly beneficial in achieving the goals of career development. Indeed, one can also learn much through collegiality, friendship, teaching, or counseling.

In the academic setting, the most effective mentors are usually those who have attained leadership status in the view of contemporaries in their fields. In addition to the extensive experience they have in their own and related fields, leaders typically also participate in diverse activities, such as peer review, and interact with government agencies, industry, and other organizations. Thus, they can provide authoritative counsel regarding issues commonly encountered in the course of career development at all stages. Mentors can offer insights and perspectives on what a person needs to do to achieve his/her goals, as well as the support necessary to resolve issues leading to personal stress. Through their efforts, mentors can make career growth, personal development, or intellectual achievement possible for their mentee.

Certain personal attributes are important in truly effective mentorship. Among these is a willingness to commit the time and effort necessary to become fully acquainted with the mentee’s intellectual strengths and weaknesses, goals, career objectives, and personality traits. This can be accomplished only through interactions continued over a sustained period of time, during which both mentor and mentee can develop levels of comfort and trust adequate to permit frank and open dialog. The time required to meet this objective is highly variable depending on the personality, needs, and prior experience of the mentee, and both members of the relationship must be prepared to make the necessary commitments. Also important is recognition of the need to project an image of accessibility and interest in mentoring, since those most in need of mentoring often are hesitant about approaching potential mentors who are senior, authoritative figures.

Nearly everyone pursuing a career in science recognizes a need for mentoring at various stages of their training, and often the academic or research advisor adequately fulfills the need. However, this is not always true, and alternative means for identifying appropriate mentors may not be well understood. Informal networking is often successfully used to discover which senior figures among a group (e.g., departmental faculty) have developed reputations as effective mentors. Under these circumstances, for example, networking can help beginning graduate students identify more experienced colleagues or postdoctoral fellows as mentors. Similarly, postdoctoral fellows can identify junior faculty members, and junior faculty can identify senior faculty members through networking. The same principle applies in industrial and governmental settings.

The value and importance of mentoring in career development has increasingly been acknowledged, but networking to find a mentor is not always successful. Therefore, many academic departments/schools and comparable industrial and governmental units have established formal, structured programs wherein mentor and mentee are chosen from lists and matched through formal procedures. As noted above, for graduate students, matching is often accomplished when academic and research advisors also function as continuing mentors. In the case of junior faculty, it is now common for a senior faculty member to be assigned as a mentor to each junior colleague in order to provide advice and counsel regarding fulfillment of requirements for promotion and tenure.

In summary, mentoring can help less experienced individuals achieve their overall academic objectives, develop the necessary background and skills to enter or continue on a career path, provide support during times of personal or social stress, and provide guidance for decision making. The experience can be very beneficial not only to the mentee but to the mentor as well.

Gerald Wogan is Underwood Professor of Toxicology, Emeritus, in the Department of Biological Engineering and Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Current research in the Wogan lab is focused on genetic damage and cellular responses resulting from exposure to RNS and ROS produced by inflammatory cells.