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Five Tips For Effective Mentoring

Marina Picciotto, PhD, shares five ways to help young scientists more effectively use their mentoring experience to reach their career goals.  

Five Tips For Effective Mentoring
Marina Picciotto, PhD

Marina Picciotto, PhD

Academy Member Marina Picciotto, PhD, is the Charles B. G. Murphy Professor of Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, where she studies the effect of nicotine on the brain. Her leadership is evidenced not only by her research but also by the numerous recognitions she has received, including being elected to the National Academy of Medicine for Leadership and the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers for Exceptional Research. 

Recently the New York Academy of Sciences sat down with Dr. Picciotto to get her insights on what makes an effective mentor/mentee relationship:

Assess needs and set goals from the start

This is the most fundamental part of the mentoring experience and needs to be established at the outset. Mentoring is a professional relationship between two people, with the goal of career and personal development. While fostering good mentorship is the responsibility of the students’ institution, Dr. Picciotto stresses that trainees are often on their own, and accountable for identifying those areas they struggle with the most. “Each trainee has their own set of skills and background,” she says, “so it’s important that young scientists do some honest self-reflection to help them recognize their own training needs and identify what is or isn’t provided in the environment.”

She adds that while some students have gaps in technical knowledge, others might benefit from improving time management or interpersonal skills. In this context, Dr. Picciotto urges young scientists to use Individual Development Plans (IDPs) to help set clear career objectives and identify professional development needs. Greater self-awareness can help trainees define goals that build new strengths, find an appropriate mentor, and obtain the most value from the mentoring relationship.

Make your experience work to your benefit

During her training years, Dr. Picciotto’s mentors encouraged her to freely explore scientific questions and directions, recognizing that “learning by doing” is often an essential part of professional growth. Naturally this resulted in setbacks that were important teachable moments.  “I made a lot of mistakes, but this allowed me to shape my own vision of what my career could be, and was a source of motivation to stay in science.”

Dr. Picciotto likes to stress to junior scientists that finding that elusive tenure track position in academia shouldn’t be the sole purpose of scientific mentoring. Equipping trainees with the tools they need to achieve their own goals – which could just as easily be outside traditional academic paths – is a more effective mentoring goal. There are many career paths where a STEM degree is in demand, and mentors can help young scientists to consider alternative career paths in publishing, industry, finance or law. This may include sharing information about the training needed to transition into non-academic positions, and introducing trainees to professionals currently working in those alternative fields. “Laboratory heads should help trainees to realize how a [STEM] PhD can be useful in today’s world,” says Dr. Picciotto.

One size does NOT fit all.  Find your fit!

Going back to fundamentals, Dr. Picciotto underscores that at its essence, mentoring is a professional relationship between two people, so there is no such thing as a “one size fits all” mentoring style. The independence she was encouraged to have as a trainee scientist may not work for those who would profit from closer supervision. Moreover, she emphasizes that there is no absolute definition of what constitutes mentoring. “Mentoring can be about simply providing information, or it may call for more extensive support and providing of opportunities.” In a research setting, the laboratory’s head is usually the main reference for guidance and advice.

However, Dr. Picciotto notes that mentorship can come from many different sources. Formal courses or workshops at the trainee’s institution, as well as in professional organizations, can complement training. These include the so-called “soft skills” such as effective writing, public speaking, or preparing for job interviews. “Trainees need many different things [to succeed in their careers] and no one mentor can provide them all.” Since there is no “cookie-cutter approach” for professional success, students who have access to a variety of training resources, and a network of  mentors with different styles and professional backgrounds, will benefit from a far richer learning experience.

Stay in it for the long haul

Dr. Picciotto recognizes that mentorship is equally important at every career stage. “[Mentoring] shouldn’t stop after the training years but ideally should continue, as there are things we do not know and challenges at all career levels.” Continued mentorship is particularly important for women and other underrepresented groups in the sciences, to develop the contacts they need to reach leadership positions.  Dr. Picciotto’s mentorship helped her build leadership skills at an advanced stage in her career. “As Chair of the Program Committee for the Society for Neuroscience, I was faced with a complex decision about the annual meeting’s program.”

Her mentor advised seeking input from a working group of experts in neuroscience, and subsequent discussions with the group helped her work through an effective solution. “I learned many things from this [experience], including the necessity of listening to all constituencies and seeking consensus.”

Think of your mentor as an extended family member

Effective mentorship not only imparts knowledge, but also provides sponsorship. “Sponsoring trainees by writing letters of support when applying for jobs or funding, requires a degree of familiarity that only develops by working closely with someone,” says Dr. Picciotto. “The commitment to caring about a young professionals’ career development can be rewarding. Scientific discovery is one type of satisfaction, but watching those who work with you succeed on their own […] and knowing that your mentorship helps trainees succeed, is an even greater satisfaction.”

Dr. Picciotto believes that the most effective form of mentoring is what’s known as “adoption” which involves working closely with a trainee to ensure that he/she is exposed to opportunities. “Mentorship and adoption is the only way […] to provide everyone with the same opportunities to succeed. The scientific community is far richer when everyone is part of it.”

You can help young aspiring scientists to further develop professional development skills by becoming a mentor in one of the Academy’s mentorship programs. Click here to learn more.