A few weeks ago, I was invited to sit on a committee of postdoctoral fellows that evaluated nominees for the National Cancer Institute’s Outstanding Mentor Award. We were advised to select award winners who not only performed their expected mentoring duties but went over and beyond the normal expectations of a mentor.
As I struggled to narrow down the pool of nominees to just the top few candidates, I started to question my own criteria for “outstanding mentoring.” A well-established senior scientist can very easily expose mentees to high-profile leaders of the research field at conferences, but may not provide one-on-one assistance in the laboratory. A junior scientist may provide a lot of time devoted to career counseling or manuscript revisions, but may not have the long record of mentees who have successfully acquired positions at top institutions.
I then recalled a recent NCI postdoctoral fellows’ seminar led by Dr. Audrey Murrell from the University of Pittsburgh School of Business (http://www.business.pitt.edu/faculty/murrell.php). She suggested that we all need diverse mentors and that we should develop mutually beneficial relationships with a network of mentors. These diverse mentors can play roles in the arenas of career development and psychosocial support.
In the arena of career development, she listed 5 mentoring roles that can be fulfilled by multiple people:
1.Sponsor: A mentor can open doors and provide access to resources.
2.Exposure & visibility: A mentor can help you become more visible within an organization or profession and help to develop your reputation.
3.Coaching: A mentor can provide knowledge (scientific knowledge or the know-how for performing well within an organization) and enhance your competency.
4.Protection: A mentor can shield you from career-damaging contacts or let you know about less obvious information that may be pertinent to your reputation in an organization.
5.Challenger: A mentor can give you challenging opportunities to develop a new skill set and help stretch people’s perceptions of you.
In the psychosocial arena, Dr. Murrell listed 4 mentoring roles that can also be fulfilled by multiple people:
1. Role model: A mentor can set examples and establish the culture and ethics within an organization or profession.
2. Acceptance & validation: A mentor can validate your knowledge, skills, experience, contributions, and your feelings of connectedness to an organization.
3. Counseling: A mentor who is highly trusted can provide a safe space and sounding board for discussing work and personal issues.
4. Friendship: A mentor who provides camaraderie can inspire creativity and innovation.
From these two lists of mentoring roles, I think it’s obvious that no single mentor can successfully fulfill all of these roles. We should not expect our PIs, as outstanding as they may be, to be a perfect match for all of our mentoring needs because such expectations only create dissatisfaction about the mentoring relationship.
We need to look to additional colleagues who are further ahead in their careers, our peers within and outside of our professions, as well as the administrative staff or others with whom we interact in our daily lives to fulfill all of these important mentoring roles.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Government.
Wenny Lin, PhD, MPH, is a fellow in the Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program at the National Cancer Institute. Prior to joining the Nutritional Epidemiology Branch in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology & Genetics, Wenny earned her MPH from the Harvard School of Public Health in 2009 and her PhD in Cell & Molecular Biology from the University of Pennsylvania in 2008.