Disclaimers on the Self-Mentoring Process

warningSince I started advocating for self-mentoring, I have received a few comments about how it’s a shame that someone would have to resort to the process of mentoring one’s self and that effective mentoring can not come from introspection alone. While I agree that stronger mentoring systems are much needed in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines, these remarks reflect an incomplete understanding of the self-mentoring process.

Self-mentoring is a vital component of any career development plan, with or without a primary mentor in the picture. The process involves taking the time to reflect upon your skills, interests and values to continuously assess where you want to go with your career and how your current activities are going to help you get there. For those of us who have never found a primary mentor, self-mentoring is also a chance to take charge of our careers and to stop feeling like there is something inherently wrong with us for not having a mentor.

Before starting any self-mentoring steps in the career development section of this blog, please take the time to read through the disclaimers below. These guidelines provide the basic framework for finding career success through the self-mentoring process.

1. Self-mentoring is definitely not a solidary process. Even though you may not have a primary mentor (i.e., someone you meet with on a regular basis to discuss professional development), you still need to actively seek out people for informational interviews to learn about new skills and career paths. Additionally, you need to surround yourself with positive, supportive people who will encourage you. The most successful (and happiest) scientists that I know have the ability to create a support system around them, often through involvement in various professional and social groups.

2. You are the only person that truly knows your skills and passions. The practice of self-mentoring will help you to align your skills with your passions in finding an ideal career path. A friend of mine was once given the advice that he should find something he likes to do and make it his hobby, but find something he is good at and make it his career. I find this to be poor advice because why would anyone want to find a job that they don’t enjoy? Skills and passions are not mutually exclusive, and self-mentoring will help you to see where they overlap.

3. Through self-mentoring, you may discover some things that you just don’t like about yourself, which can be frustrating at first. However, you can view these self-discoveries as challenges and identify ways to grow professionally. Also, be sure to evaluate any critical advice that you receive from others and use it in a constructive manner to improve your skill sets. Be aware that you may need to ditch those people who are super negative or blow you off. For example, I have a three-strike rule when contacting people to request an informational interview, and if they don’t respond after three attempts then they are off the list. Don’t take any of the overly negative advice or lack of response as a personal attack and instead stay focused on your personal goals.

What is “Self-Mentoring”?

Self-mentoring is a term that I have associated with my individual career development activities. From my personal experiences, a research mentor does not always equate to a career mentor, and if an alternate mentor is not found, then many graduate students and postgraduate researchers never think about career development until it is too late. Frequently, I observe scientists who have labored relentlessly in the lab but have neglected their own career development in the process. This can lead to a frantic scramble for a job at the end of  graduate or postgraduate work which sadly causes undue stress and a greater possibility of accepting a non-ideal position or leaving science altogether. For this to change, it will require an overhaul of the research environment to a mentoring culture and several programs are in place at various research institutions that can provide a model framework. For example, Argonne National Lab and Northwestern University have established mentoring programs for postdocs and biomedical graduate students. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) also has great recommendations for selection of a research mentor, which are important guidelines to consider when looking for your next position or serving as a mentor to others.

In the mean time, it is vital for science professionals at all levels to take responsibility for their own self-mentoring. The idea of self-mentoring can best be described by Dr. Saundra McGuire (Louisiana State University) in a short video that she recorded on how to become your own self-mentor. The concept is quite simple: if you cannot find a great career mentor then you must learn to be your own self-mentor. Of course, the process of self-mentoring requires much self-reflection, determination and time but it is definitely worth the effort! There are no excuses for having a pity party about the lack of a good mentor (it is okay to vent every once in a while) but this energy can best be applied in a series of structured career development activities. The key is to make a commitment to self-mentoring, start this process as early as possible and set aside scheduled time each week to work on professional development. I hope this blog will serve as a central resource for the self-mentoring process with regular posts on tangible career development activities to help STEM professionals stay focused on their career goals.

Foreword

I devoted the first decade of my adult life to pursuing a rewarding science career but not having a clear picture of what that rewarding career would be. As an undergraduate, I was encouraged (as many students are) to pursue a PhD and become a “mini-me” of my undergraduate professors. But life as a single mother and the monotony of basic research interfered (thank goodness) with these unrealistic career goals for my personal situation.

With a few professional experiences under my belt (and the impending realism of a teenager who will be begging for college money in a few years), I have refocused my career efforts to transition away from the research/teaching lab bench and into a career that will take advantage of my technical, organizational and communication skills. Thus, I have embarked on a journey of exploring alternative science careers in a process that I have coined “self-mentoring”.

In attempts to retain some sanity and save others from the despair of wandering aimlessly in pursuit of a satisfying career, I have decided to share my experiences and related career development information through creation of this blog with regular posts on relevant topics. My primary objective is to provide a step-by-step guide to “self-mentoring” for the aspiring science professional at any career level.

You can browse the posts in any order or visit the page menu to guide you through the career development section of the blog. I hope that you will find this information useful for your personal career development and please feel free to comment with additional resources/ideas that will be helpful to readers. Best wishes with your future science career endeavors!