by Colby Benari
When I am discussing career development with early career clinician scientists they almost always mention mentoring. It is great to hear that mentoring is becoming more accepted and valued for the benefits that it can bring. It was not long ago when in the UK mentoring was viewed as a remedial intervention. It was understood to be only useful when a scientist or clinician was not doing well in his or her career. Mentoring was a way for them to get back on the right track.
Now more and more clinician scientists understand that mentoring is essential even when you are doing very well. But there is still a misconception about what mentoring is and isn’t.
Often mentors and mentees (i.e. the person who is being supported by the mentor) think that mentoring is simply advice giving. While advice from a mentor can be very valuable, true mentoring supports mentees to make their own decisions rather than following the direction of the mentor. This difference is crucial and it means that mentees will be able to better support themselves in the future.
It can be difficult for mentors to stop giving advice during a mentoring session – especially because mentees often ask for it directly. Often the best thing that a mentor can do is ask good questions. A good question for a mentee is open, most importantly. An open question can’t be answered with just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It requires a longer answer that will provide an opportunity for the mentor to ask further questions.
Giving some advice is useful for mentees – as long as it is in the context of a discussion that encourages mentees to arrive at their own conclusions. Mentors should also make it clear that mentees do not have to follow the mentor’s advice. In fact, mentees should seek support from more than one mentor. This approach will help mentees to gather multiple perspectives and approaches to deal with problems.
Often mentees feel as though they have to take the advice that their mentor gives them. Mentors can play their part in ensuring that mentees are not obliged to take their advice and that mentees have a big enough pool of contacts to draw in if they need support.
Being an effective mentee
For mentees, asking for support from a more senior professional contact is the most difficult and intimidating part of a mentoring relationship. Mentees often put off seeking out mentoring support until they have a crisis to deal with or a big decision to make. Mentees would be much better off seeking support well before a crisis – especially as nobody is immune to difficult challenges in their career.
By seeking mentoring support early, mentees can establish a relationship with their mentor before they need urgent support. A good rapport between mentor and mentee is very helpful when a crisis situation arises
Once a mentoring connection has been established mentees should take charge of the relationship. After all, the relationship is based around the mentee’s need for support. Mentees should set up meetings with their mentor and suggest how frequently they would like to meet. Having a conversation at the start as to each person’s role in the logistics is very helpful.
Mentees should also come to the meetings with an idea of what they would like to discuss. A written agenda can be helpful but may be too formal in many circumstances. Just thinking ahead of time about what they want to achieve in the meeting sets the relationship up for success.
Developing a successful career as a clinician scientist can be challenging and mentoring is a great way to take a big step forward with confidence and support from someone who has been there before. Mentoring relationships require a thoughtful approach from both the mentor and mentee as well as good communication. With some effort and preparation mentoring can be hugely beneficial and accelerate clinician scientists’ careers.