Mentoring Monday(?)


What is Mentoring?

This was one (of many) questions that we tried to answer during the TechWomen visit to the Princess Sumaya University of Technology during our trip to Jordan.

Mentoring is a relationship with someone who sees your potential, can give you some (often much needed) perspective, who wants you to succeed, and who doesn’t have a financial interest in your success (paraphrasing Julia Grace, because I like her description from a Girl Geek Dinner last year). (Aside for science-types: this may mean that your PI is NOT your mentor because their grants/funding may be riding on your success.  Discuss.)

My personal experience with mentoring started in graduate school, when I was a protegee in the Palo Alto AWIS mentoring program.  I had a *wonderful* mentor, who helped me navigate the ups and downs of grad school (including a Ph.D. advisor who moved to Texas) and figure out what I wanted to do next.  Since then, I’ve been a mentor for them and started the San Francisco AWIS chapter’s mentoring program.  (We’re in year 3!)  I was a cultural mentor for TechWomen last year (and was a technical mentee for my Emerging Leader).  And I have mentors of my own (hi, mentors!) who want me to succeed, give me advice (sometimes sorely needed but unpleasant advice), and help me to work through professional problems.

Given these experiences, I thought that I could contribute to a panel discussion on mentoring.

As part of our visit to PSUT, we participated in an “unconference.”  This means (typically) that there aren’t set-in-stone conference sessions to participate in, but that the sessions are decided on during the event.  For the PSUT conference, members of the delegation had input on the different topics for discussion, and I was one of four TechWomen mentors who signed to facilitate a discussion on mentoring.

Katy talked about her experience running corporate mentoring programs.  Julia talked about the importance of mentoring- both having mentors and being a mentor for other people.  Helen shared her experiences as a mentor and how those typically started.  I talked about how important having mentors has been for me, to get through graduate school and in switching fields.

One (important) thing I learned during the discussion is that the concept of mentoring doesn’t really exist in Jordan (and other Arab countries?) as we know it.  One of the Emerging Leaders (ELs for short) from Palestine talked about how she didn’t know what mentoring was until she took part in TechWomen.  She said that she thinks it’s very important, but that there can be difficulties for women who need more senior mentors.  This is because many of the more senior people are men, and it would be inappropriate for younger women to spend time with them.  (I asked why it was so difficult- I was curious.)  Our discussion group brainstormed ways that women could find mentors who were already in their networks, or whether email mentoring would be acceptable.  We also talked about “peer mentoring,” where groups of people going through a similar point in their careers form a group to help one another through the transitions.

A guidance counselor at one off the local schools that was participating in the conference asked how mentoring is different from career counseling– a great question.  Career counselors help people to figure out what careers they might like based on their strengths and interests.  Mentoring helps people to navigate a path to a certain career.  A mentor is someone who has been there: has gone through a similar transition, followed a similar path, explored similar things.  My mentor in graduate school worked in biotech, something I was not particularly interested in, but had successfully wrapped up graduate school with a difficult PI and moved on after her Ph.D.  She’d done what I wanted to do– graduate– and had advice on working through difficulties with my PI.   Some things fall into the middle– for example, you might have informational interviews to learn more about certain careers and get good advice (informal mentoring) in the process.

And then it was time to wrap up a great discussion!

What I learned:

  • It’s important to go out and recruit your own mentors.  If there’s someone you’re introduced to for an informational interview and you think they would be a good advisor, consider asking them to be your mentor.
  • Formal mentoring programs and informal mentoring both have their place.  (I’ve done both.)
  • Cultural norms can influence decisions about who might be a good mentor– but it’s possible that technology can help connect people around the world for mentoring. 🙂

Do you have someone you consider to be your mentor?  How did you meet him/her?


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Holly KN says:

    Can a PI be a mentor? Actually, I disagree with your conclusion – I think it *is* possible, although these folks are rare. Such a person has to be able to distinguish his/her own good, from the good of the student. And often in the finanacial aspects of research science, those two things aren’t *so* far apart – what ends up being far apart is what the student wants to do (any of 100 things) versus what the PI thinks is the “best” or “only” track (PI-dom!). Of course, such PIs probably won’t make very good mentors, either, except to students who want to fellow their footsteps.

    Which brings me to your distinction between mentor and career counselor. I’m not sure I agree with that, to be honest. Take a PhD student who’s a year from graduation, but uncertain about what he/she wants to do – by your definition, his/her only hope is a career counselor, since he/she couldn’t actually HAVE a mentor without first having a clear professional direction. Sure, this person could probably use some career counseling services (if the appropriate office were equipped to help graduate students) – but that doesn’t mean that a PI mentor would be a waste, either – especially if said mentor could openly and supportively discuss non-faculty-track options with the student.

    I’ve never been in an official mentoring program; and I actually don’t even know that I’ve had any good informal mentoring relationships in science, either. One faculty member in particular had his eye out for me during my PhD, but he had his own set of idea about what I should do. So he was an advocate and supporter, but not really a mentor. Yep…not so much on the mentoring front. I do have a coaching mentor, though, and she’s great (informal, though).

    So there you have it. My 2 cents…

  2. Meg Desko says:

    Thanks for your comments, Holly 🙂 I updated my thoughts on mentoring vs. career counseling to *hopefully* clarify.

    I do agree that a PI can be a mentor (mine was, in many ways), but that it’s (unfortunately) not common. I think it’s much easier when the PI’s goals are aligned with those of the student/ postdoc. If the PI wants their student/postdoc to be successful and allows for many definitions of success, it can work. If it means being exactly like them, not so good. I think there may be a threat hanging over the PI- student relationship as well; if you don’t do what your PI thinks you should, they can make things really difficult. That’s power over, not power with, and it’s one of the biggest problems in academia, IMHO.

    My PI in graduate school was a good mentor for most of my time with her. She knew before I did that academia wasn’t for me, and she introduced me to people in fields I was interested in as soon as I told her that was the case. She was supportive when I went through my medical school phase and arranged meetings with other Ph.D.s who went to med school. She gave me good advice for dealing with people (misogynists?) when they asked questions that implied that the 6 months I’d spent in lab finding an answer they didn’t like wasn’t good enough (I may have run out of a meeting with a visiting professor crying after he told me that I needed to do a certain experiment; when I explained that my protein required very specific buffer conditions that meant I couldn’t do that particular experiment, he told me that if he was my PI, I would never graduate). She wanted me to do good research and publish (I wanted that too).

    Yes, it might have looked good for her to have many of her chemistry children (former students/ postdocs) go into academia, but we would be more successful and happier if we pursued careers we were actually interested in. She gets many, many bonus points for this. Until her interests clashed with ours (the move), we all had good mentorship. For career questions, it was good even after that. (Thinking about this makes me feel *really* lucky.)

    I was trying (perhaps not effectively) to say that that may not always be the case, which is something to keep in the back of one’s mind when getting advice from your own PI. (Is this for my good, theirs, or both?)

    I *am* very happy to hear that you have good mentorship on the running coach front. Woohoo! A good mentor is worth their weight in gold. And I like your distinction between advocate and mentor– it’s a fine line. I’ve heard more about sponsor/ mentor differences, but I’m still working this one out.

  3. Holly KN says:

    Ah yes – I think I *am* on board with the revised copy. Thanks for clarifying! 🙂

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