Mentoring has recently become a commonly used buzzword within academic science. Everybody should have it and everybody should have experience providing it. Even NIH now strongly encourages well-structured mentoring plans for postdocs and PhD students in grant applications, and these plans are as important as the science  in fellowship applications. There are many organizations that offer mentoring and workshops about mentoring in the Boston area or online. In the old days, up until about 10-15 years ago, mentoring for scientists was done for better or worse by their principal investigator (PI). Mentoring programs for minority scientists were sometimes available, these normally stopped as soon as they complete their undergraduate studies or even earlier.

Letting PIs do the mentoring was a good idea when science was much more like a trade or art. The master (it doesn’t really matter if it is a baker, a painter or a bench scientist) teaches the apprentice everything she knows and after some time the apprentice goes out into the world and becomes a master of her own.

But modern science is no longer like learning a trade, now science is done in large teams and the PIs are seldom still proficient in the lab. The master-apprentice relationship is nowadays between young PhD students and postdocs or technicians, who teach them the “trade”. In the trade analogy, the PI is now more of the customer, who wants something very specific done and most importantly pays for it, while the people in the lab have to figure out how to do it. Traditionally the master knew the apprentice, they worked together closely and often the masters were involved in the student’s lives, but modern PIs are seldom in the lab anymore. Resulting in the PI being unable to “mentor” the student or postdoc in the traditional sense, by helping them grow as scientists and as people.

Today mentoring includes access to the PIs network, help in navigating departmental and inter-institutional politics and hopefully development of social networking skills.  At some point somebody realized that the traditional mentoring system doesn’t work so well any more, so they introduced the idea of mentoring teams and mentoring plans. Both ideas are pretty good on paper, but the practical implementation of these is often not so easy.

Let’s look at mentoring plans first; those PIs, who are not good mentors, do not magically become good mentors because they have to fill in another box in their grant applications. BU is offering workshops on how to have a good mentoring relationship. However, the big issue here, is that these workshops are offered for PhD students and postdocs; they teach us how to be good mentees. This is important too, but you can be the best mentee in the world, set agendas, set goals and meeting times and have precise questions for the mentor but if the mentor has no idea what he is doing or has no real interest in you, then very little can be achieved. There are workshops for faculty, but they are not compulsory. Hopefully the next generation of PIs (us) will hopefully be better prepared for being a mentor.

Mentoring teams sound great on paper, you assemble a group of wise elders that give you advice on your work and allow you to profit from their network, maybe also help you out with reagents. But that is not how it works in reality. For a successful application you need a mentoring team of experts in your field. Experts are busy people, why would they mentor you? They are also nice people, so quite a few experts will agree to be your mentor, with the understanding that you will never ever ask them any questions and acknowledge their help in your papers.

Alternatively you can choose less good mentors, who might actually help, but the application could fail, because you need one of the top outstanding scientists in your field. How could this be avoided? The funding agencies could require mentors to submit progress reports . This would create additional paperwork for the funding agencies and the mentors but may keep “world-renowned experts” from signing up for just-on-paper mentoring and allow applications with less famous but more involved mentors to succeed.

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