Mastering a Mentoring Relationship as the Mentee

Jan. 14, 2020

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Mentoring offers a myriad of benefits for both mentor and mentee. It is a two-way street and should be navigated thoughtfully. As a mentee, here are some tips to maximize your mentoring time and ensure that you have a healthy relationship with your mentor.

Identify What Type of Mentor You Want

First, identify your own needs. Do you want a traditional long-term mentoring relationship with formal meetings? Do you want one-time advice on a topic, grant or career-related activity? Do you need someone who will help advance your career and connect you with other researchers? 

Mentors can be classified as traditional mentors, coaches and sponsors. Mentors can be your lab Principal Investigator (PI), thesis committee members or faculty members, within your department or that you’ve met at meetings or through connections. A traditional mentor provides formal, long-term guidance on career development, scientific projects and work/life balance.

An example of coaching for manuscript review at ASM Microbe 2019.
An example of coaching for manuscript review at ASM Microbe 2019.
Coaches are people who focus on the development or improvement of a particular skill or infrequent issue, like finding a job, negotiating an offer, crafting scientific presentations, writing manuscripts or designing experiments. In general, coaches spend less time with you, but make a significant impact in a certain area. Coaches, similar to mentors, can include thesis committee members, faculty within your department or at other institutions, office staff, senior lab personnel, university or lab alumni, among others. 

Over time, you may also need a sponsor. Sponsors are senior scientists who have garnered substantial political capital. A sponsor is committed to the career development of an individual and uses their influence to advocate for and advance mentees. Sponsors help you join prestigious committees, advance in professional organizations or join grant study sections. Sponsors tend to be senior PIs that have clout within the scientific community. You should carefully consider what type of mentor you need at your current career stage and start formulating a plan based on these needs.

Choose Your Mentor Wisely

Your choice of mentor will affect the success of your mentoring relationship. Begin your search by identifying highly successful individuals whom you respect and want to emulate. Keep in mind that their personal attributes (patience, altruism, empathy, work-life balance, etc.) matter just as much as their scientific accomplishments. Additionally, asking someone you trust to help you find a mentor can help broaden your search and allow you to gain access to mentors you might otherwise be unable to reach. Many scientific societies and organizations also offer mentoring programs to help match mentors and mentees.

Set Realistic Expectations

Define and communicate your goals ahead of each one-on-one meeting with your mentor. Think about what you want your career to look like in the next 5, 10 and 20 years. Brainstorm about short-term goals that can help you accomplish your end goal. An Individual Development Plan (IDP) is a valuable resource for formulating your career goals. Creating an IDP requires the mentee to identify their short and long-term career plans and formulate a path to enact the plans with support from their mentor. Much like a mentoring agreement, make a tentative schedule where you identify the frequency of mentoring meetings, the general length of these meetings, the duration of the mentoring, areas where you want to grow/improve, and ultimately what you want to get out of the mentoring relationship. Set achievable goals for the mentoring relationship and recognize that personal development will take time. All mentoring relationships should start with a clear understanding between the mentee and mentor of what the mentee is looking for and what the mentor is prepared to offer. A mismatch in expectations here is one of the key reasons that these relationships fail.

Take Ownership of the Mentoring Relationship

It is important to remember that your mentor volunteers his/her time to help you grow and develop. Make sure their investment is worthwhile.
  • Set up meetings between you and your mentor.
  • Be prepared at meetings with an agenda that addresses your goal(s) for the meeting.
  • Actively engage in discussions with thoughtful questions.
  • Set goals between meetings.
  • Be open to feedback.
  • Follow through on advice received from your mentor.
  • Avoid time wasters in your meetings, such as arriving late, not having a clear, action-oriented agenda, straying off-topic, excessive complaining, etc. 
  • Give plenty of notice if you need to cancel or reschedule a session.
  • Show gratitude for the time and advice. 
Additionally, provide feedback to your mentor. If they provided good advice on a problem, let them know what you did and how it turned out. Overall, be committed to the relationship.

Be Respectful of Your Mentor’s Time

Good mentors are successful because they manage their time wisely. As a mentee, be respectful of your mentor’s time. For example, give your mentor enough time to review your work (abstracts, manuscripts, grants, etc.). In general, give 1 week for abstracts, 2-3 weeks for manuscripts and 1 month for grants. Of course, the time required depends on your mentor – a mentor that travels frequently may require more time. When you give items to your mentor, always make sure the work is high quality and worth their time for editing/critiquing. Avoid long rambling emails, be organized and focused, embrace feedback and be responsive. Make the most of your mentor’s time.

In summary, identify the types of mentors you need, be intentional about your mentoring relationships and make the most of each other’s time. 

Good luck on your mentoring journey.

Author: Mindy Engevik, Ph.D.

Mindy Engevik, Ph.D.
Dr. Mindy Engevik is an instructor at Baylor College of Medicine in the Department of Pathology & Immunology.