This post is part of an ongoing NACB Scientific Shorts series on professional development. The series addresses issues relevant to early, mid-career, and experienced clinical laboratorians, with a focus on the people side of the job.
There is little that I value more in life than the development of interpersonal and professional relationships. The mentor/mentee rapport largely encompasses both personal and professional alliance, and is therefore, to me, one of the most satisfying relationships to maintain. Like most, this relationship is a two-way street, requiring both parties to be motivated, willing to communicate, and committed to mutual growth and success.
A large part of me feels that we may not always pick the best mentors from logic (i.e.,- it’s not always about their publication record and their academic pedigree); rather, intuition and an inherent sense of trust and respect that diffuses between individuals is a driving force, particularly for me. That said - I do believe there are a few criteria that can facilitate selecting a great mentor. Since it’s not a one-way street, these items include both self-reflecting and mentor-specific components.
1. Choose a nice person. I once made the mistake of selecting a mentor based solely on the project and not on our ability to communicate or treat each other respectfully. While publishing with this person was fruitful, the relationship was a disappointment for both of us. Since, my number one criteria for choosing a mentor is simple: choose someone that treats you the way that you want to learn to treat other people. Interest in the project should not be undervalued, but this should not be at the expense of good natured and healthy communication. Along the same lines, your mentor does not have to be the chair of the department or the person with the most experience in the field. More importantly, your mentor should be someone you feel like you can learn and grow from.
2. Be inspired. A mentor’s goal is to educate the mentee in the nuances through which they approach his or her career, while simultaneously fostering the evolution of individual professional characteristics. Find someone that inspires you by their approach to problems and their accumulated success, or their ability to teach and interact. Allow yourself to adopt the characteristics that inspire you most.
3. Inspire. Solving a problem using a different approach than your mentor and having them recognize your individuality in the process is an amazing feeling. Good mentors continue to mentor because they themselves develop as both a person and a profession from the relationship. Be pro-active about contributing – bring your ideas to the table, and reciprocate the inspiration.
4. Expect patience. Didn’t get it perfect the first time? Congratulations, you’re normal! Choose a mentor that remembers we all have a learning curve, and we all fell down when we were learning to walk.
5. Work hard. Learning takes energy – don’t be afraid to use it. I’m a huge advocate of work-life balance, but I’m equally passionate about putting in the time to produce. Show your mentor that you are willing to make sacrifices and you aren’t scared of getting your hands dirty. In turn, your mentor will feel more compelled to edit your drafts quickly, give you that extra pep-talk, and have something specific to write about in your soon-to-be-applyied-for-job (or award) letter of recommendation.
6. Be creative. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. One of the great parts of having a mentor is that they can pull you back down to reality – so aim big, and let them re-ground you as needed.
7. Remember that your mentor is human too. Perfection is futile and unattainable, even for the best mentors. Remember that like you, your mentor will also make mistakes communicating, solving problems, etc. Use those moments of imperfection to be the best person you can be – to put your own best foot forward. Of everything, it’s correctly handling these moments that will leave a lasting impression of your mentor/mentee relationship on your mentor.
Brown BC. The gifts of imperfection: let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Minneapolis: Hazelden Press, 2010.