Moving from Academia to Policy: Mentorship and Career Transitions
This essay is part of a series of guest posts from Academy Members and Ambassadors. For more content by and about our Members and Ambassadors, click here.
Mentoring is a necessity, not just during a particular phase in one’s life, but throughout one’s professional progression. And while I know that certain mentors can provide excellent training for academic careers and general skills at specific moments, others may serve as unconventional mentors during career transitions, or in life in general. These individuals could be faculty members or administrators at your university. They may mentor for different purposes or they may just be there to listen — even that can make a large difference.
I’m a former academic who transitioned into a science policy career. During my academic career, and in my transition from the bench, mentors have been critical.
My PhD advisor taught me how to think like a scientist, how to problem-solve and troubleshoot, and how to accomplish projects in a timely manner. She took the time to celebrate small successes and created a positive environment where I felt appreciated. She also chatted with me about personal matters that I felt comfortable sharing, and always had an open door and a listening ear when I needed it. Her mentoring style made all the difference for me, helping me gain confidence in both my personal and professional abilities.
"The more we focus on developing the person in front of us and building them up, the better the entire research enterprise will be in the long term."
During my transition into policy, and even now, it became clear that mentoring sometimes comes from unexpected places or even from people who may not necessarily be more experienced. We typically think of mentors as academic advisors, but I’ve come to find that sometimes even a friend can be a mentor, and they can help you move forward in your journey by purely being there to listen. Mentoring is less about giving one-directional advice, but more about building a bidirectional relationship in which both parties gain and grow together. In fact, both people can be the mentor and the mentee at different times during the relationship.
This distinction is particularly important for early career scientists and, in particular, those in academia, where the power dynamic is often unbalanced. Having a supportive mentor can make a large difference in your happiness and professional success. Mentors are able to more broadly influence an entire generation of scientists by creating a positive environment in their research groups or labs. The more we focus on developing the person in front of us and building them up, the better the entire research enterprise will be in the long term.
We must also remember that the research enterprise is composed of various groups of scientists at different stages who likely require different types of mentorship. I want to ensure that the next generation of scientists is mentored appropriately for their level, and this includes providing additional support where it is needed. As a woman in science, one of my interests is to ensure that girls with an interest in STEM have role models to look up to who can help them be successful. Just as my PhD advisor did for me, I seek to be a mentor for the next generation of scientists, in particular girls who want to pursue a science career.
Academy Membership consists of a global community of innovators, educators and problem-solvers. By joining this network, you'll lend your support to mentoring and professional development opportunities for graduate students, postdocs, and young people embarking on a STEM career.
Adriana Bankston is a Policy & Advocacy Fellow at The Society for Neuroscience (SfN), the Director of Communications & Outreach at the Journal of Science Policy and Governance (JSPG), and a Policy Activist at Future of Research (FoR), a nonprofit organization with a mission to champion, engage and empower early career researchers with evidence-based resources to improve the scientific research endeavor. You can find her on LinkedIn or Twitter.