Avoid creating a “mini-me”: Train now to become a good mentor
Submitted by Donna Kridelbaugh on Mon, 2014-07-21 18:07
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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 towards 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 genuine 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 the future. If you have an advanced degree, you are likely 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 if you learn early on how to be a good mentor.

In addition, employers often look for evidence of teaching and outreach experiences, especially for supervisory roles (e.g., faculty, lab managers and research staff). In addition, 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 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 through a “mini-me” method 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 2013 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 how to be an effective mentor, then a gradual trend towards a mentoring culture will take place in STEM fields. 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 at your institution, there are still many opportunities to get involved with STEM outreach and mentoring. I came up with 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 that are looking for volunteers to staff special events or design exhibits;

•  Join an online mentoring network (e.g., 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 AllForGood.org for volunteer opportunities by geographic location.

Additional resources on mentor training

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


Donna Kridelbaugh (@science_mentor) holds an M.S. in microbiology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with five years of postgraduate research and teaching experience in academic and government labs. She is a strategic communications consultant who provides writing, editing and career matchmaking services for early-career scientists. She is also developing an online field guide to self-mentoring in science careers. Learn more at http://ScienceMentor.Me.

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