A few thoughts on mentors

As promised, a post on finding mentors and being a mentor. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, so it’s difficult to distill everything into a structured post – but here a few thoughts / tips that might be helpful.

1. You need more mentors than only your supervisor

Even if you have the best supervisor in the world, they will not know all the things you might need advice on, like time management, planning your career or putting your health before your project. This is even more true if your background is different from the supervisor’s, and they have never been in the situation you might find yourself in.

Therefore it’s important to find other mentors who are more similar to you. Gender is an obvious characteristic that comes to mind – here are studies showing that women assigned to women mentors are less likely to drop out of science and engineering, or more likely to become professors themselves.

I think this is similar to my experience. As I have written before, I had a great advisors during my PhD. I would have probably laughed if I had to join a mentoring program and meet with another professor, just because we both happened to be female. But I do think that meeting some amazing women mentors along the way, is what convinced me to give a career in academia a try.

That being said, there are other characteristics that can define what similar means for you, but are more hidden, such as being a first generation student or having a health issue.

2. Mentors can be anyone

A mentor doesn’t necessarily have to be a more senior person in the same field. If you see the word mentor as “a person you can learn something from”, it becomes easier to think about this. Here are some (perhaps less traditional) examples of who I consider mentors:

  • Assistant professors in different fields related to computer science. We have a Slack group where we share advice, our failures (#rants) and successes (#humblebrag).
  • Students who I do not supervise, but who inspire me because of how they approach their work and/or life, and/or who teach me how to be a better researcher and supervisor by sharing the experiences they have.
  • Academic community on Twitter, where lots of amazing advice is shared.

Note that most of these people probably do not consider themselves as mentors in these situations! These conversations do not start with “will you be my mentor?”, but with genuine questions about a particular topic, that the others might have more expertise in.

 

3. Be a mentor too

Since anybody can be a mentor, you can be a mentor too!

If you want to benefit from others’ mentorship, you have to be able to offer something in return. This might be difficult to imagine if your mentor is more senior, but they can probably still learn something from you too. If this still does not apply to you can pay it forward by mentoring other students.

In all cases, be a good mentee – here’s a recent thread on the subject:

Finally, I’d like to share this post on service as leadership – mentoring isn’t a chore you have to do, but an amazing opportunity you get to do.

 

7 things I wish I had done during my PhD

Every so often there are threads on Twitter about what people wish they would have would have known before starting their PhD, or would have done differently in retrospect. Here is a thread with lots of great advice by David Schoppik and another one by Jennifer Polk. I haven’t responded to either question, because there is so much to say that I can’t fit into 140 characters. However, I have already been keeping a “wishlist” of sorts, so I thought this was a good opportunity to finally turn them into a blog post. Here they are, the things I wish I had done during my PhD.

1. Having a lab journal

I somehow managed to miss out on this concept completely. Maybe I had heard about it, but dismissed the idea because I didn’t work in a lab. I only really found out about it when I was about to start my tenure track position, and was reading “At the Helm” in preparation.

Sure, I had a notebook. I would use it to make notes in meetings, draw toy datasets, write down tasks as they came up… anything, really! But none of these things were intended for anybody else, including the future me, to read.

In retrospect, it would have been helpful to have a central place to record ideas, different (failed) experiments, and where I ended up storing my data and code.

2. Having a todo list

This might be a surprise to many, but I didn’t have really have a todo list during my PhD. I would write down tasks as they would come up – for example “prepare presentation for lab meeting” – in my notebook. If I didn’t get a task done 2-3 pages later, I would copy it over to the current page I was on.

I don’t remember forgetting to do anything important and I didn’t miss any deadlines, which probably gave others (and myself) an impression that I was an organized person. But the 2017 me is overwhelmed by the idea of this “organization system”.

3. Spending more time with other PhD students

I don’t mean with this point that I didn’t spend any time with friends or colleagues. I did my PhD in in the same city as where I got my other degrees, so there were lots of friends around. And I was in a great lab, where we would often do social activities together, and would see each other as friends. I realize that I’m very lucky to be in this situation.

But most of friends were not doing PhDs, and with my colleagues, often it was more relaxing to talk about topics outside of work. So it was great to meet other PhD students, for example during courses, and share experiences about writing, teaching… anything that might have been challenging. I should have done that a lot more! Maybe I would have learned about “lab notebooks” and “todo lists” 🙂

4. Seeking out more mentors

As I wrote above, I was in a great (though perhaps small) lab. My supervisors were both inspiring scientists, and very kind people. But even despite these favorable circumstances, I didn’t always dare to tell them what was on my mind. How was I doing with my research? Was my CV maybe good enough to apply for this scholarship? Did I have good chances of getting an academic position? Questions I was too scared to ask, because I thought I would be laughed at, even though I logically knew that wouldn’t happen!

But things changed a bit when I did an internship, and met two very different mentors. They were closer to me in age and career step – both postdocs at the time – and were women. They saw right through my self-esteem issues, and made me a bit more confident that I wasn’t entirely delusional about my aspirations.

5. Applying for all the things

In the Netherlands, as a PhD researcher you are an employee, not a student. I had a salary and my travel expenses were reimbursed. Therefore I never felt the need to apply for any financial support.

As for awards, most of the time it either didn’t cross my mind I should apply, and if it did, my imposter syndrome didn’t let me. It didn’t help of course, that the one scholarship I really thought was a good fit (Anita Borg Memorial scholarship) was rejected three times in a row.

In retrospect, I think applying for more things would have made the applications I really wanted, like the Anita Borg one, a lot better. Not to mention the benefits for applying for larger grants later on.

6. Joining Twitter

Although I had an account for years, I didn’t start using it until half-way through my postdoc. Maybe a funny story is that this all happened because of a grant I applied for. The best submissions would be advertised via Twitter, so I thought I should at least see what people are saying about my submission (not much). But since I was now checking Twitter every day, I also started following more accounts, engaging in conversations etc – and never left.

Being part of the (academic) community on Twitter has been pretty awesome. From excellent advice about applying for jobs, to thoughtful threads about academic culture, to cat pictures (#academicswithcats), there’s always something to motivate me or cheer me up. Through Twitter I found many friends, role models, and from time to time, even people who were somehow inspired by me. I cannot stress how essential this has been in times of existential crises almost inevitably associated with being a postdoc.

7. Blogging

I had a blog on and off during my PhD (see My relationship with blogging), but I didn’t really dare to write anything, let alone tell other people that I have a blog. I had a blog, but I wasn’t blogging.

And that’s too bad. Because since I really started writing and sharing posts (although I still find I’m often outside my comfort zone), lots of interesting things happened. Next to improving my writing and getting me invitations to give talks, blogging has given me a bigger sense of purpose. Related to the Twitter point above, this has been essential for dealing with setbacks.

I hope these are useful whether you are doing a PhD or are already done – it’s not too late to start! If you have any other advice you’d like to share with others, please leave a comment below!

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