good mentorship is so key…
Just came back from an hour-long coffee break with one of my mentors in my medical field of choice, in which I am currently applying for residency positions. When I think about the factors that lead me to head down the various paths that I have traveled, so much of it has been due to the mentorship that I received. Good mentorship is so key! Finding someone who has the right personality, attitude, and work habits to jibe with your own and at the same time is both sympathetic to your situation and generous with opportunities to get name out there.
It’s weird but in hindsight, people just find each other. I think the key is to just talk to as many people as you can and eventually you’ll bump into like-minded people. I’ve been blessed (and I really mean blessed–academics can be so vicious sometimes) to have three faculty members (one of whom is at another university) who have all, in different ways, mentored me through graduate school and medical school–in research and on the wards. It is interesting that all three are young, junior faculty members. Perhaps that is as much a reflection of my own tendencies as it is of theirs.
At this point in my career, I just want to produce as much meaningful research in my field as possible and to learn as much as possible. So I guess it’s not too surprising that I met all three through various research projects–either approaching them or by being approached to collaborate on one project that has turned into multiple with each. I think working with someone on a research project really tells you a lot about them: their personality type (easy going or uptight), their level of commitment to their work, their commitment to teaching (accessibility–can you go and knock on their door? how long does it take for that person to return your emails?) as well as more personal qualities (goal-oriented, picky, lacksadaisical, punctual, detail-oriented, generous, open-minded, stubborn, etc). Usually, by the end of one paper, you can tell if this is someone who you can work with/interact with in the long term and if this is someone who will guide you in your training.
For people early in their careers (e.g. me), I think you gotta figure out how to get your name out there as much as possible through publications and national presentations in order to develop some name recognition in your field. At the same time, I think this is the time where we need to figure out how to balance “life” (e.g. family life, “you”, etc) with work. I think a good mentor can give you so much insight into how to do this or at least how to figure it out for yourself.
Finally, a good mentor lifts you up and nurtures your career by giving you opportunities. There are a lot of people out there who would love nothing more than for you to do work for them and then take all of the credit. Believe me I know. I’ve been there. It’s pretty rotten when the choice is either to give you an opportunity or to just pass it up all together and the latter is chosen. But, despite my bad experiences, I honestly believe there are people out there who are committed not only to their own careers, but also to mentoring others as well–who are committed to your success (isn’t that a crazy concept given what many of us have experienced?)–who see it as a part of the tradition of academia. The people who I work with now are constantly giving me the chance to present at national conferences, are signing me up as an official reviewer at scientific journals and continue to involve me in collaborations. And I really, really appreciate.
My bad experiences have often at the time motivated me to go at it (i.e. academics) alone. But, from what I’ve seen, that’s a path few make it through in academics. I think you gotta keep trying, keep talking to different people, keep working with different people and when you find those few who are really committed to mentoring you, it really makes it all worth it.
But that’s just my opinion…