Mentoring: Training in Disguise

What is National Mentoring Month?

web-badgeJanuary is National Mentoring Month, which was founded by the Harvard School of Public Health and MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership to raise awareness about mentoring programs and to recruit people to serve as role models for youth in their communities. Mentors make a positive impact on youth’s lives, and research shows that “mentoring works”. A mentor can improve a student’s school attendance record, chance of going to college and attitude about learning. Mentors are needed at every step from grade school to college and beyond to connect individuals with the resources that they need to achieve their goals and to help them realize their full potential. Anyone can be an effective mentor — it just takes a caring attitude and a desire to guide your mentee towards success in life.

Why should you care about mentoring?

Serving as a mentor is a great way to pay it forward and honor any mentors that guided you through your own education or career path. From a professional development standpoint, part of an early-career scientist’s training is to learn how to manage your own lab or team in a future career. If you have an advanced degree, you will likely be expected to take on management responsibilities from the start. In general, people are more productive when they are effectively mentored, so it will be to your advantage to learn early on how to be a good mentor.

In addition, employers often look for evidence of teaching and outreach experiences, especially for employees (e.g., faculty, lab managers and research staff) who will take on supervisory roles. Academia wants to see teaching and research mentoring experiences to ensure that you will be a good mentor to their students. Outside academia, hiring managers want to see evidence of interpersonal skills and the ability to manage teams. Spending a few hours a week to mentor a student or to participate in outreach work can provide that needed experience to help you advance your career.

How can you be an effective mentor?

Although matching lab coats may seem like a clever idea, creating your own clone may not be the best mentoring approach. Why would you want everyone to be just like you? Mentoring must be tailored to each mentee’s needs, which depends on their personal interests, skills and values. In a recent American Chemical Society webinar on mentoring relationships, Dr. Donna Dean of the Association for Women in Science presented her top rules for being an effective mentor: 1) Be yourself in a truthful manner; 2) Never embarrass or make your mentee feel awkward; 3) Be aware that your actions will have effects (positive or negative) on your mentee; 4) Keep a good sense of humor; and 5) Teach your mentee the unwritten rules of your field (e.g., how to choose the best journal for a publication).

Unfortunately, mentor-training programs may be overlooked as necessary training for students or postdocs, and thus, the “mini-me” mentoring approach can be commonplace in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. However, if more researchers take the time to learn to be an effective mentor then a gradual trend towards a mentoring culture will take place in STEM. The best way to learn mentoring is to practice through work experiences and/or volunteer opportunities. There are also a number of online resources and mentor-training programs readily available.

Where can you find mentoring opportunities?

Teaching and mentoring research students in academic laboratories are common ways to get experience. If these options are not available to you, there are still many opportunities to get involved with STEM outreach and mentoring. I brainstormed a short list to get you pointed in the right direction. Now, it is your turn to take the initiative and reach out to these groups to offer your help. In the end, mentoring is training in disguise because you will gain vital transferable skills for your future career, while helping to inspire future generations of STEM professionals!

•  Offer to help your research supervisor with research interns in your lab or office;

•  If teaching opportunities are unavailable to you at your current institution, network with faculty at local community colleges to find out more about adjunct teaching positions;

•  Find student groups at local colleges or your alumni institutions and offer to present a guest lecture or to share career advice with the students;

•  Get involved with groups at your institution (e.g., postdoc association) to serve as a peer mentor to incoming researchers and to plan outreach events.

•  Talk to the communications department or outreach office at your institution to find out about any outreach initiatives ongoing that may need volunteers;

•  Contact local community groups (e.g., Girl Scouts or Boys and Girls Club) to assist with education outreach programs or to mentor a student;

•  Check out local STEM education initiatives and organizations to inquire about volunteer opportunities in your area;

•  Contact K-12 science and math teachers at local schools to offer help with curriculum development or tutoring services;

•  Locate museums in the area who are looking for volunteers to staff special events or design exhibits;

•  Join an online mentoring network. Examples include Million Women Mentors and MentorNet;

•  Find out if the professional organizations to which you belong have started any mentoring programs or outreach projects. You can also look for volunteer networks through the American Association for the Advancement of Science volunteer site;

•  Search the database at for volunteer opportunities by geographic location.

Additional resources on mentoring

Research Mentor Training at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

MENTOR Program Resources and Training

Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Math and Engineering Mentoring Resources


Proactive approaches for building a professional network – AWIS webinar, Thursday 11/29, 4 pm EST

Please join me for the webinar “Proactive approaches for building a professional network” to be presented to the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) on Thursday, 11/29/12 at 4 pm (EST). The webinar will focus on a survey of networking techniques to build a professional network, including places to meet people, ways to approach people and considerations for organizing successful networking events.

The webinars (called STEMinars) are free to AWIS members. AWIS “champions the interests of women in science, technology engineering, and mathematics across all disciplines and employment sectors. Working for positive system transformation, AWIS strives to ensure that all women in these fields can achieve their full potential.” Benefits for AWIS members include free STEMinars, magazine, newsletter, advocacy news, active discussion boards, job listings, etc. To learn more about the organization and to become a member, please visit their website at

View Slides from Presentation

Big Bang Theory’s Dr. Sheldon Cooper Nominated for Science Award: World’s Worst Research Mentor

©2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.

By now, if you are a scientist who is not aware of the sitcom ‘Big Bang Theory‘ then you would be best buds with Sheldon Cooper because you are completely out of touch with reality (or you just need to get out of the lab more!) Sheldon Cooper…excuse me, Dr. Cooper…is a quirky theoretical physicist with the social skills of a toddler and a dominating character on the show, now in its sixth season on CBS.

But as I watch the show (on the verge of snorting laughter at the comical spoof of researchers), my mind sometimes wanders to the question—why is Sheldon Cooper so freakishly funny? Honestly, many opinions portrayed by Sheldon in the series are hugely stereotypical and just plain insulting to the science community, which weirdly doesn’t deter me from watching the show.

In my mind, Sheldon Cooper epitomizes everything that is wrong with mentoring in the sciences, wrapped up into one defined but awkward package. I think the ability to laugh at the faults of the system creates an opportunity for us in science to maintain an open dialogue on mentoring issues…after all, if the writers/producers of a TV show recognize the idiosyncrasies surrounding scientists then we also need to acknowledge and address these issues.

In case you are not familiar with the show or have forgotten all the gentle insults, here is a short list justifying why Sheldon Cooper should win the “world’s worst research mentor” award:

1. Sheldon frequently refers to the inferior intellectually ability of females and downplays the contributions of  women in science.

Example clip (Season 1, Episode 13 – The Bat Jar Conjecture): Female physicist Leslie Winkle bitterly explains her hatred of Sheldon Cooper for his chauvinistic comments about women in science.

2. Sheldon continuously asserts his snobbery that basic research is superior to applied research.

Example clip (Season 1, Episode 15 – The Pork Chop Indeterminacy): Sheldon is insulted when his sister calls him a “rocket scientist”.

3. Sheldon suffers from a complex that I like to call the “PhD syndrome”—a false state of grandeur where one believes that only people with a PhD degree deserve to be taken seriously in science. 

Example clip (Season 1, Episode 13 – The Bat Jar Conjecture): Sheldon discounts Wolowitz’s ability to contribute to answering Physics Bowl questions because, after all, everyone knows that Wolowitz doesn’t even have his PhD!

Discussion Point: Can we use comedy to promote open dialogue on issues with mentoring in the sciences?

Have you hugged a postdoc lately? Celebrate National Postdoc Appreciation Week!

Have you hugged a postdoc lately? Well, this would be the week to show your thanks to a postdoc in celebration of National Postdoc Appreciation Week! In 2010, the United States Congress passed a resolution “expressing support for designation of the week beginning on the third Monday in September as ‘National Postdoc Appreciation Week’.” This resolution of support attests to the essential need of postdocs in science and their important contributions to humankind. In reality, we know that postdocs tend to be under appreciated and not fully acknowledged for their achievements, so take the time to thank your postdocs for all their hard work! Events have been planned around the country, but it’s not too late to show your appreciation for postdocs this week (and you don’t have to limit this to one week a year!) You can skip the hugs if you want (which may be a bad idea considering that the postdoc may have spent all night in the lab ;)), but here are some suggestions from the National Postdoc Association for celebrating! Most importantly, a simple gesture (i.e., sending a thank you note, taking a postdoc to lunch/coffee and having a conversation about the postdoc’s career development plans) can be enough to show a postdoc that they are appreciated!

Here are a few other useful links for postdocs and their mentors to help facilitate career development discussions:

National Postdoc Association – membership information

Best Places to Work Postdocs, 2012 – results from the annual postdoc survey (The Scientist magazine)

Editorial: Planning Career Paths for PhDs – by Jim Austin and Bruce Alberts (Science Careers)

Live Chat Friday, August 10th, 7 am (EDT) – Mentoring: building relationships that benefit academic careers in science

Live Chat Friday, August 10th, 7 am (EDT) – Mentoring: building relationships that benefit academic careers in science

Join in on the live chat to explore how to foster networks for peer-to-peer support. I have been invited to be a panelist for this discussion through the Guardian Higher Education Network and would love to hear any insights and experiences on mentoring from the science community! The posts will be available after the chat for your future viewing. I look forward to chatting with others about this great topic!

*The discussion from this live chat is archived and still available for viewing on the website.*