Erica Akhter: Finding the mentors you need

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Check back every Wednesday for new blog posts!

Current position: 4th Year Ph.D. Candidate, Neuroscience
Program start date: August 2014
Institution: Emory University

What I need is someone who will make me do what I can.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, on mentorship

I’ve gotten very lucky with my PI’s. We have an excellent relationship. We chat in the halls. We share candy. I stroll into their offices if I ever need help, but they’re good about giving me the space I need to make decisions and get things done on my schedule in my way.

That is, at least, what I thought up until a couple of months ago.

Hang on, keep reading, I promise I’m not bashing my bosses on an NIH website.

It was a beautiful day. I had just analyzed a new data set, and I sauntered into my PI’s office with my laptop and without a care in the world. I sat down. I showed him my graph. Together we cheered for the p-value. Then he asked me what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

I froze. I stuttered. I’ve mentioned before that I like time to think about things. Of course, everyone knows that I’ve been thinking. Regardless, my initial reaction was to fervently proclaim I didn’t know and I wasn’t ready to decide. He replied to me (kindly) that I was a fourth-year student and it was time to pick a direction. I could always change my mind, but now was the time to start specializing. Industry? No. Teaching? Yes? Maybe? I had been talking about it vaguely for a long time. He was ready with several different plans and suggestions on how to get there. I listened. I relaxed. We brainstormed.

I left about an hour later feeling a little shell-shocked but very relieved to know I was supported. I would have dreaded that meeting for days had I known it was coming. I don’t know whether he did it consciously or not, but by pushing me out of my comfort zone at the last minute, my PI saved me the agony of overthinking. In that conversation, my advisor had known what I needed before I did. This, I think, is the hallmark of an excellent mentor.

I’ve been lucky when it comes to mentorship at every level of my academic career. In high school, my mentors helped give me confidence. In college, they helped me identify opportunities. Now, in grad school, they’re both giving me direction & helping me find my own. I know I never would have gotten where I am without these relationships. I’ve also watched people who haven’t been so fortunate. Because of these experiences, when it was time for my fellow BESTies and me to decide on an end-of-year project, we chose to design, with the help of the Atlanta Society of Mentors, a workshop series about building graduate students’ “mentee toolbox.”

Earlier this month we held the first session of our pilot of the mentorship curriculum. We mostly covered the basics: what mentorship is, what makes a mentor good & what we, as mentees, specifically need from our mentors. With the help of the class, the other facilitators and I compiled a list of the most common issues graduate students struggle with when interacting with their mentors:

  • Using face-to-face time with mentor efficiently
  • Managing differences in scientific direction
  • Discussing priorities, asking for what you need & being assertive about it
  • Building trust
  • Finding mentors outside of the lab environment

Aside from the last one, you may notice a common theme within all of these struggles: issues with communication. Though I’ve been lucky to have mentors with whom I click with easily, not everyone can have the same experience. There are things you can do, though, to make things easier.

  • Practice articulating your needs to yourself & your friends, then your PI. This is both a skill and an art. If you have trouble coming up with explicit language, try taking the Birkman test (previously described by Darcie on this blog). It can help elucidate and explain your needs and behaviors, as well as provide you with reports you can literally hand to your mentors on how they can best help you.
  • Practice identifying important conversations. Once you realize you’re about to have crucial conversation—or when you’re in the middle of one—it becomes easier to observe yourself and behave in productive ways. The aptly-named book, Crucial Conversations, is great for helping you think about how to handle these hard topics as well as any potentially negative strategies you may be using to avoid or diminish their quality.
  • Remember your boss is a person too. One useful exercise can be to write a mission statement for yourself as well as for your PI and for your lab as a whole. Understanding everyone’s priorities can both help you humanize those you’re working with as well as boosting your ability to “manage up” when you necessary.

The last point that I’d like to make is that you should never be afraid to seek mentors in areas of your life that your official “mentor” doesn’t or can’t satisfy. The easiest way to do this is to simply go out of your way to ask for advice. It’s remarkably easy to find people willing to help you if you’re willing to make the first move.

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