A query on mentoring

February 24, 2012

One of the most fundamental roles the mentor plays in the development of a scientist is the introduction to the subfield. Making the trainee known to other scientists who make up the field. Publication is key. Proper crediting during seminars is another. Sending the trainees to meetings and introducing them around to the key players is good too.

As I said, in my view this is fundamental. Inescapable. Science is a human enterprise like any other and therefore interpersonal relationships matter. A lot. Even if they are not supposed to, we are unable to escape our biases related to “knowing” and “not knowing” other people.

My question for you Dear Reader, is whether you were Introduced to a subfield as a trainee. Did your mentor(s) make a specific point to enshroud you in a field? If you are a mentor, do you go out of your way to Introduce your trainees?

(If applicable, feel free to tell me that this is a mark of backwater, BunnyHopper dominated OldBoyzGirlz backslapping subfields and should be rigorously uprooted.)

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  1. Right now, I work in two separate subfields. In one of these, my advisor is a fairly well known figure, and he knows the community. I was introduced to this subfield by being sent to an appropriate session at the major field conference. Even though my advisor always didn’t try and introduce me, I’m fairly extroverted and introduced myself.

    My other subfield is an area that is new to my group, so my advisor doesn’t know the people. I’ve gotten a sense for myself of the major players according to literature, one of whom happened to be a professor at my undergraduate institution, so I was more comfortable initiating communications. However, I’ve been left to my own devices to network, and will probably ultimately end up introducing my advisor to this subfield, rather than the normal way around.

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  2. HCA Says:

    Yes and no – During my MS, my adviser made sure I went to the Big Subfield Conference every year, as well as a few Related Subfield Conferences, but he wasn’t able to come with me due to teaching responsibilities, and I was introduced around by senior grad students and lab alumni. During my PhD, my adviser has similarly encouraged me, but also has more scheduling freedom and thus can attend himself and introduce me around.

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  3. Jekka Says:

    Throughout my training, the general attitude toward others in the field has been disdain. And I really changed fields for my postdoc. Either people are competition for precious Cell papers, or they are doin’ it wrong. I have never been introduced to another scientist by a mentor. And, yeah, I thought I was picking a different kind of postdoc lab. Anyone out there ambitious *and* friendly? I do not personally define success by number of C/N/S pubs, but that’s how I’ve been brought up.

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  4. DJMH Says:

    My grad PI was exceptionally good at this–would always introduce the grad students etc when bringing a visiting PI around the lab, would always introduce us if we happened to be nearby when talking with another PI or postdoc or whatever. Because I saw the importance of that training, and knew how good it made me feel that my PI didn’t ignore me as soon as another faculty member hove in sight, I am now quick to introduce myself or cadge introductions whenever and wherever I wish.

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  5. Bashir Says:

    My advisor did somewhat for our areas of interests that overlapped. Though that area is kind of a small, low-key area. It seems like everyone knows each other.

    If I wanted to meet people outside of that niche I was on my own. Which was good because I began to develop that skill. By the end of graduate school I was kind of known as the guy to talk to about networking. Which is quite odd if you know me.

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  6. bsci Says:

    My grad school advisor was great about this with post docs. He would very actively network for them & make personal connections. For grad students, he definitely promoted our work & named us in his talks, but not many personal connections. He supported travel for 1-2 meetings a year, which is something that’s easy to take for granted. When big names visited the university, there were sometime meet-ups with grad students, but that was usually at a level above the advisor (though he was supportive of these events).

    I’m in a primarily post-doc lab now & I’m regularly invited to join in with my boss & big names when they visit or at conferences. It makes a huge difference.

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  7. Dr Becca Says:

    My grad advisor did not attend many meetings, and thus I was mostly on my own when it came to meeting the bigwigs face to face. However, she made up for it somewhat by having me “own” my research from very early on, which got me a good deal of exposure. As a 3rd year grad student I sat on a press panel at SfN with some pretty fancy sub-field people (including a future post-doc mentor), and later was interviewed by newspapers and TV. Since I’ve graduated, she’s sent me to speak at meetings in her place, which has been fantastic for networking.

    I feel like these kinds of opportunities may be even more useful in the long term, because of the independence they foster, and the potential for the trainee looking awesome (as opposed to just, you know, standing next to their PI during a meeting’s social hour).

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  8. anon Says:

    My advisor is super about promoting his students- naming us in talks, introducing us to others when we’re at conferences together, getting us in contact with people who may be able to help us on topic x, etc. He has even told me that he thinks promoting students is one of the most important aspects of his role as mentor. Now if only I can get less shy and make use of all his useful contacts he’s developed for me…

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  9. drugmonkey Says:

    Anyone out there ambitious *and* friendly? I do not personally define success by number of C/N/S pubs, but that’s how I’ve been brought up.

    Even as cynical as I am, I do not believe that good, supportive mentoring and GlamourChasing are mutually exclusive.

    Is there a……trend? slant? tendency? for the GlamourChasing PI to be all about him/herself and therefore to think of the trainees as expendable? Perhaps.

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  10. My post-doc mentor and I entered the particular subfield we now both operate in simultaneously, as it was through my post-doc work in her lab that we both stumbled into that subfield. I am an outlier on the extroversion scale, and so I have always done my own networking in the various other subfields I am currently operating in.

    As far as making introductions of my own trainees, yeah I do this as much as possible. One important context for this is working the phones to get my grad students excellent post-doc positions. My most recently graduated PhD student chose between three outstanding post-doc offers, all three of which were fostered by my own personal connections to the three PIs.

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  11. Travis Says:

    Yes.

    During both my MSc and so far during my PhD my supervisors have introduced me to other researchers in the area. Not always during meetings since I only tend to go to 1 or 2 per year (and they may not always overlap with the conferences attended by my supervisor). More so by inviting me to be involved in projects or grants (ones where I didn’t *have* to be included, but where it was very beneficial to me to be included), or hosting talks from other researchers and then having a meet-and-greet session where us students can interact with them. Like Doc Becca’s experience, my supervisor is also very good at passing along opportunities that he can’t take part in personally (conference calls, talks related to my area of research, etc), which has also been good in bringing me into contact with other people in our area.

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  12. Anony Says:

    As a graduate student, my PI introduced me to the subfield through conversations ABOUT others in the field, but he was a bit of a home-body and hated all the noise and crowds of conferences. When I went to conferences, I was mostly on my own for networking. He was supportive and definitely went to bat in my corner when these people called him to check my references for post-doc applications or when he was giving a talk that included my work, but he was never one to proactively reach out to others. I think it made it harder for me to know the true “insider scoop” of what makes my subfield’s PI pool tick, but at least I know I got my job on my qualifications and not simply because my PI is a schmoozer (or, at least, that’s what I tell myself).

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  13. Pascale Says:

    It’s not just who you know, but those connections are important. I was introduced about by my training mentor, and I have tried to do the same with my trainees.

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  14. whimple Says:

    You’re not helping your trainees with this. For 90+% of them, introducing them to your subfield is a total waste of their time. You should be making connections for them in industry, regulatory government, just about anywhere EXCEPT in your subfield.

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  15. drugmonkey Says:

    My meetings include people in all sorts of jobs, whimple. NIH, regulatory affairs, scientific support, pharma, biotech. I include these in the community that trainees need to be Introduced to.

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  16. drugmonkey Says:

    Getting positions despite deficits or handicaps is a personal warm-fuzzy but it is beyond asinine to intentionally handicap yourself to obtain this dubious value, Anony.

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  17. Jim Thomerson Says:

    I did geology through the MS and then switched to ichthyology. At first my supervising professor was not much help. He told me a lot about the field, but used first names only, and I had no idea what he was saying. As it turned out, I met a lot of people. I have always thought the best people to know were people more or less at my developmental level. People I knew when we were both graduate students have been the most valuable to me. I have gotten to know the past big names, but still think that is less important than knowing the future big names. In later life, I like it when younger colleagues introduce me as the person who taught them ichthyology.

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  18. TheLabMix Says:

    My Grad PIs are not particularly good at this. They attend several conferences a year, often to present our work, and all we get is our names in the author list of the talk and our picture at the end of the talk. We also have essentially no support for traveling to meetings, dispite the lab pulling in some nice grants. We have to fund ourselves. Not that all this should be a given, but it is disheartening as a student to see other labs actively encourage and fund travel/networking/etc as an aspect of their mentorship. I don’t think this is malicious on the part of my PIs, but simply isn’t a priority to them. Plus, they’re stingy with finances as a personality trait, and I think this carries over to how they run their lab. The trainees in our lab still try to get out and network, but it’s just not with much support from the bosses.

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  19. “at least I know I got my job on my qualifications”

    AHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!HAHAHAHAH!!!!!!!HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!AHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!!!!

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  20. drugmonkey Says:

    Sorry to hear that LabMix, I think all mentors should be sending trainees to at least a meeting per year.

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  21. Arlenna Says:

    Neither of my (simultaneous, collaborative) postdoc mentors did this for me explicitly with conferences/phone calls as a postdoc–however I did get some local seminar speaker meeting opportunities with some big names–nor did my grad mentor (but he was in another country and research area from where I went as a postdoc). One of my postdoc mentors subsequently did this for me once I became junior faculty by helping me get study section experience. I am a mixed introvert/extrovert, so I’ve made my own contacts in my new areas of interest (like CPP), despite the activation energy barrier I have to get over internally to do it.

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  22. Arlenna Says:

    Oh, and for my folks: we’ve been going to our subfield annual meeting as a group every year since I started my lab; I have the luxury of having plenty of funding so we can do this–imagine it’s not always so trivial for labs starting out. I always give names for who did the work I am presenting, and mention my students’ interests to my network and talk about how great they are.

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  23. Dr. Dad, PhD Says:

    This post kinda makes me sad, because I realize that I’ve introduced my mentor to more people than he has introduced to me.

    I suppose that’s part of the danger from switching specialties, but it pretty much killed my job applications…. Guess I’d better resign myself to doing postdoc #2. 😦

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  24. I suppose that’s part of the danger from switching specialties, but it pretty much killed my job applications.

    This is extremely unlikely. Do you have evidence that switching specialization killed your job applications?

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  25. TheLabMix Says:

    Thanks DM. I agree, although i don’t want to come off like an entitled grad student. So I’m working on getting out to meetings using travel awards and other sources of funding. Trying to be proactive rather than just complaining.

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  26. TreeFish Says:

    My undergrad mentor couldn’t care less about the undergrads. My grad advisor was very shy and I, like Dr. Becca, had to rely on myself to network. Then, I became a post doc, and struck up some close collaborations with two of the most hooked-in, smooth, and very accomplished scientists in my field.

    About 2 years in, I was eating dinner with Wellcome Trust and HHMI people at 11pm in obscure locations, and then heading over to house parties with the creme de la creme of Europe while watching bonobos apes bond on an iPhone…and being offered absinthe! My how things change…

    Jesus Mary and Joseph, I can only hope the psychological scars are worth it! It kind of reminds me of buying nitrous tanks in college. I networked with some dudes in Public Works, got some empty nitrogen tanks, and then networked with some pot dealer. Before I knew it, we were throwing crazy parties (e.g., I dressed like Mother Earth and was asked by a lesbian how much it would take to get up my skirt!) every week. It paid the bills, but getting the nitrous while watching serious rednecks get coked up, inhale balloons, and then have seizures, seriously scarred TreeFish’s knudeln.

    Would you rather watch bonobos apes get it on with HHMI and Wellcome Trust scientists, or do nitrous balloons while listening to War Pigs with white trash from just-outside-of-big-metropolitan-Midwest? It just might be the difference between your dream job and the job you had to take…

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