Guidance Beyond Your Advisor

The different types of mentorship and how to seek them out
MAR 2020
Neha
K.
Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology

Before starting grad school, whenever I considered the concept of “mentorship,” the first person I envisioned was my future advisor. However, as a PhD student in the middle of my second year, I have come to realize that there are many facets of mentorship throughout the graduate school experience. This is particularly the case for a place like MIT, where numerous principal investigators (PIs) are notable leaders in their respective fields. As a result, they face a plethora of other commitments on top of research, from companies to conferences to consulting. This often prevents PIs from meeting frequently with their trainees, leading to what is widely known as the “hands-off” mentorship style. This type of advising style necessitates that many grad students be self-sufficient and self-driven, traits that aren’t uncommon among MIT grad students.

However, this does not have to mean that students must embark on their research projects alone, feeling hopeless when they have reached a roadblock or are confused about the next steps. In fact, this is more of an opportunity for students to seek out mentorship from other sources. This practice requires a degree of proactivity and self-advocacy, as it means students must first recognize when their training is lacking and then find mentors that can help them address this gap. For me, this realization came when I became aware of the fact that monthly meetings with my PI were not sufficient to answer all of the questions I had about future project directions or specific experimental design for drug delivery. Like many in his position, my PI is a big thinker and idea-generator but tends to leave the details to me. Moreover, I realized many of these questions could be readily answered by other people in my lab.

This is not to say that PIs themselves do not provide adequate mentorship. On the contrary, I have found it particularly invaluable to learn about my advisor’s past experiences and thought process when it comes to defining long-term project goals and vision, particularly his considerations when tailoring various drug delivery technologies to specific disease applications.  On the other hand, my first year and a half at MIT would not have been the same without the guidance of other role models that I have sought out. I’ll share some specific shades of mentorship that I’ve been able to avail myself of:

  1. The Seasoned Postdoc, or the month-to-month mentor.

This type of mentor has been working with the group for a few years and knows the inner workings of the lab and your advisor. They derive a great sense of satisfaction from helping fledging students and often may be pursuing a position in academia. My relationship with the Seasoned Postdoc involved gleaning as many pearls of wisdom as possible before he started his professorship position. Inquiries about basic experimental protocols would lead to long-term project queries – should I be tackling basic science questions? Or focus on a translational project? Or a mix of the two? My mentor has also been a source of life advice about career paths – industry vs. academia? What kinds of projects should I be pursuing to keep the door to academia open? Often, the Seasoned Postdoc will see your potential and gladly take you under their wing. In my case, my mentor got the opportunity to write a review paper and brought me on board as a co-author because he thought it would be beneficial for my early scientific career.

  1. The New Postdoc, or the week-to-week mentor.

This type of mentor has years of experience, but it feels like you two can easily engage in discussions of mutual learning. Often times, I’ll pop my head into the New Postdoc’s office for a quick conversation about a project idea, which will end up with me pulling up a chair as we discuss back and forth, each new thought leading to another. This mentor helps me carve out specific experimental details and goals, ensuring that my scientific thinking is sound while bringing up other questions that I may not have thought of. However, we also share a degree of reciprocal mentorship, where I can also bring him up to speed on everything from the status quo of the lab to the best brunch spots in Boston1.

  1. The Graduate Student One Year Ahead of You, or the day-to-day mentor.

This type of mentor is happy to answer any questions that you have, regardless of how mundane. For example, I frequently go to an older grad student in my lab to find out what project-specific instrument trainings to get, how many hours I will spend crying over weekly problem sets for a notoriously difficult course (kidding!), or the most important question of all – will I pass my oral qualifying exam? This mentor remembers what it was like to be in my shoes. So, she is always willing to pay forward the lessons and information she has learned through her own PhD experiences. Sharing an office also makes it easier for her to provide guidance to me over shared chocolate or amidst rants about an experiment not going as planned (classic).

I feel very fortunate that the other members of my lab are selfless enough to lend a hand, without expecting anything in return. Our lab is also on the larger side, composed of people with a range of backgrounds and expertise, making it easier to find role models to fill these different “niches” of mentorship. However, role models can also be found outside of the lab, like older students in your program, postdocs and research scientists in other labs within your department, or students in extracurriculars.

Mentors also benefit from taking students under their wing, as it helps them hone their teaching skills or their understanding of a concept, or simply allows them to feel valued by being able to pay forward their experiences. However, mentors often won’t know that you need their advice until you make it known to them. Rather than isolating yourself, the first step is to ask for guidance. While it can feel daunting initially, you’ll thank yourself for it later. I know I have.

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1My vote is a tie between Café Luna and Trident Booksellers and Café.