Are you a better scientist than your mentors?

July 11, 2012


I am addicted to comment threads for just this reason. Someone comes up with an offhand remark…and I’ve never thought about this before now.

Have you surpassed any of your mentors as a scientist?

I think my answers are hell yes, apples-to-oranges, yes (in some ways), yes (in many ways), not yet and meh. Then there are the variety of quasi-mentors….not sure these are fair to discuss.

No Responses Yet to “Are you a better scientist than your mentors?”

  1. Pinko Punko Says:

    Impossible and impossible. This will be an interesting one.


  2. Alex Says:

    Depending on who/what counts as a mentor…

    First guy whose lab I worked in as an undergrad: I think my CV is better. But WTF does that matter? I doubt I’ll ever have his depth of knowledge and cleverness. And I certainly don’t have his patience.

    Second guy whose lab I worked in as an undergrad: I will never match his accomplishments. But he continues to be a valuable source of advice to this day. In fact, he just helped me through a trying situation.

    Guy who gave me tons of advice throughout undergrad: My CV might match his some day. Sort of. But he’s an amazing teach and mentor. It will be a steep climb to match his skills.

    PhD advisor: He really bloomed later in his career. There’s no way I could hope to match what he is now, but my early steps are suspiciously similar to his. Who knows where I might wind up?

    Wise old man who was not my official PhD advisor but was a very necessary sounding board in grad school: I will consider myself a success in life if my former students respect me as much as I respect him.

    Postdoc advisor: Our paths are so different that it’s an apples/oranges comparison. I’m glad that I spent that time in his group to see something different; it has been tremendously beneficial. But it is so different that I can’t compare.


  3. Interesting question. I think for me it’s apples to oranges in most cases. Also: my PhD professor had 2 glamour mag publications from his PhD so that’s hard to surpass. However, now he’s more of a manager than a scientist. There are a lot of things I would do differently from my mentors when I would become someone’s mentor.
    And I feel that whenever I get the feeling that I know things better than my advisor it is time to move on. And it seems that that feeling comes faster with every new advisor.


  4. drugmonkey Says:

    It is also interesting to think about the people who amazed you as a graduate student. In the fields you were learning about, there must have been scientists who were current and hotz at the time….have you surpassed them? Did they fizzle? Is your understanding of “great scientist” just really different now?

    I can think of two that just tanked at some point. Dropped off the pace and/or the map. Still doing science related jobs but more of the administrative type.


  5. Bashir Says:

    Tough to say. For both my grad and postdoc mentor they both have their strengths and weaknesses. In some ways it’s more about what type of scientist you are than straight up quality. Gradmentor is a small town grocer, postdocmentor is a demi-god. Both do at least one thing far better than I current do. Both have a few obvious weaknesses. I’m probably a tad too junior to be saying that I’ve surpassed anyone.


  6. Namnezia Says:

    Ha! I could only wish. For one, they keep getting better, raising the bar. I feel like I still have much to learn scientifically from all of them.

    But one day I shall challenge them to a final light saber duel…


  7. Zen Faulkes Says:

    At pure research, I have not surpassed and probably can’t surpass my mentors, given the institutions they were in, resources they had, etc.

    I think I might be better than them at writing and outreach, though.


  8. anon Says:

    hell no. My post-doc mentor still has a fucktonne of funding, an army of a lab, and publishes in glamour mags every other fuckin week. I’m having trouble rubbing two nickels together to get my research going.


  9. AcademicLurker Says:

    My postdoc mentor is a member of 3 national academies and has been given just about every award on offer short of the Nobel.

    So I don’t think I’ll be leaving her in the dust any time soon. Although one can dream…


  10. Jim Thomerson Says:

    I have produced students who are better than me.


  11. Alex Says:

    Jim is what I aspire to be.


  12. Ria Says:

    I think it depends on what you mean. I surpassed one of my “mentors” ages ago in terms of scientific reasoning, largely because he was unwilling to keep up with the literature and was working on outdated concepts (outdated by at least 20 years!) because he was so enamored of those concepts. His CV is still better than my own (largely because he’s been a scientist for 20+ years longer), however, although my publication rate far exceeds his at this point.

    I don’t think that I’ll ever surpass one of my other mentors…he’s too brilliant, too dedicated, and too conscientious a scientist/mentor. He takes all aspects of his job extremely seriously, and if he felt that his performance were slipping, he’d be more likely to retire than to subsist as dead weight. He’s the kind of scientist that I strive to emulate. Not to mention he’s got an exemplary CV/grant funding record. Other mentors that I’ve had I’ve felt as though we each had skills that the other lacked, scientifically and managerially (which is definitely relevant to running a lab, despite the lack of emphasis on training these skills in our graduate schools and generally in our postgraduate training)…which makes it just about impossible to say that I would ever be able to “surpass” them. Apples to oranges.


  13. My PhD mentor was part of a revolutionary time in a particular field back in the 1970s and 1980s, which involved the field splitting into groups studying a variety of different model organisms. She chose the wrong model organism, and when genetic techniques exploded, she was sort of left in the dust, and ended up transitioning to mostly administrative roles.

    My post-doc mentor is a brilliant person, with the deepest and broadest knowledge of the scientific literature of anyone I have ever met. She is also exceedingly creative: a fountain of novel ideas. She is not a great mentor of people who are not exceedingly analytical and self-motivated, and she is a terrible writer.

    I am extremely analytical, an excellent manager, an outstanding writer, and I have the ability to combine existing ideas in very novel ways, but I am not as intrinsically creative as my post-doc mentor. I have a fuckeloade more grant support than either of my mentors have ever–or, in the case of my post-mentor–will ever have.


  14. More interesting question is, have you surpassed *all* of your mentors? If so, you need to remember to find new ones who you can still learn from.


  15. anon Says:

    The few people – that I know- with the experience of having surpassed all their mentors have focused on their students as their inextinguishable source of learning and creativity.


  16. Mike_F Says:

    CV-wise, yes and yes. But that means nothing. I still quote their pearls of wisdom to my students, and still call the one who is still alive when I need a dose of wisdom, counsel and experience.


  17. Dave Says:

    I’m still very much in the early, early mentored phase (if one ever leaves it) and I would be happy if I even get close to my mentors level. I’m not sure he is the most creative, out-of-the-box thinking type of guy, but he just knows how to get stuff done and he plays the game incredibly well. His ability to get funding is like nothing I have seen thus far in my career. He just got his R01 renewed for the 35th straight year with a 2nd percentile score, and he is about to turn 70. His publishing record is outstanding too. I think it is over 400 articles at the last count and he consistently gets his papers in the top journals in our field (NEJM, Lancet, JCI etc).

    If I reach 70 and am still going like he is, I think I would consider that to be a good innings. He is certainly someone to look up to.


  18. Busy Says:

    I’ve been fortunate to have six mentors over my career, starting at my undergrad years. Since then I’ve might have passed four of them. The other two are still guiding lights in the storm ahead.


  19. GAATTC Says:

    PhD advisor’s favorite saying was “You can’t rush Science” which did me little good in trying to get papers out. 1st post doc advisor never left his office and did not really contribute to my project. 2nd post doc advisor never left his office but would actively help you get stuff done by contacting people about reagents and turning manuscript drafts around. He is a two RO1 guy and had been for some time. Unlikely I can match him. but I do mentor more directly in that I’m at the bench to ensure that projects keep moving forward and my students get at least the one paper required for graduation. I’m not one of those PIs that does not know how things are done in the lab, so that helps me mentor better. The key is to learn from the people we have worked with and apply that knowledge, for the good, in your own lab.


  20. Isis the Scientist Says:

    I think Drugmonkey just found the lint in his belly button


  21. drugmonkey Says:

    Jealousy of my renowned comment threads is unbecoming I-storm.


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