How to find the right mentor for you

By Claudia Bonfio, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK

I always thought that being a Postdoc was going to be better and easier than being a PhD student. And this was my feeling when I enthusiastically packed my life in a suitcase and moved to Cambridge from Italy, ready for my new postdoctoral adventure. My dream was then to become a group leader in a top university.

It took me about 2 weeks in my new Postdoc life to understand that I was completely wrong. It was not better or easier. I felt completely lost, with no clues about what my future in research would be. I was not sure any more about becoming a group leader, but I was also not sure if I wanted to be a project manager, or perhaps an editor, or an industry employee. My new research group was very friendly, but I started to feel as if I was in the right place in the wrong moment to enjoy and make the best out of it.

My research group

Luckily, every Postdoc working at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology has the opportunity to have a mentor, who is supposed to provide guidance and support. Moreover, as a member of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), I also had the opportunity to apply for the RSC mentoring scheme. Intrigued by the opportunity to talk with someone who few years before me probably felt the same feelings I was experiencing, I decided to take the opportunity to have a mentor through both schemes.

For the MRC ‘Postdoctoral Training Scheme’, I had the opportunity to choose my own mentor. Hoping to expand my network and receive useful suggestions on how to succeed in academia, I chose a young outstanding group leader working in my research field and performing excellent science.

The RSC mentoring scheme allows you to be matched with an experienced researcher who volunteered to mentor young early-career PhD students and Postdocs. According to your answers on an online survey regarding your personal and scientific attitude, the ‘best-fit’ mentor is selected and you are put in contact with him or her. My RSC mentor is an empathic woman and a teaching fellow with previous experience in industry and academy, a perfect combination to have useful discussions and suggestions about being a successful woman in science.

Many funding agencies ask you to include your mentor’s name when you apply for postdoctoral funding. Even when your University or funding body do not provide you with the opportunity of having a mentor, you can still have one. You don’t need a signed contract, you just need to find someone you think might be a good option and email him or her. What about an invited guest you have met and talked to at a conference? What about a member of your PhD committee? What about another Professor in your Department you have always admired?

This is a 5-point list that helped me to find the right mentor, to open-up with them and to get through my little early-career crisis. Hopefully, it may also help you to do the same.

  1. Write down your future plans If you don’t have a clear idea of your future and how you see yourself in 5-10 years, a good option could be to write down pros and cons of any job or position you are thinking about (even the unrealistic ones!). One of my mentors suggested I should do this exercise, and it really helped me to understand what I envision for my future. Also, doing it before choosing a mentor could help you understand who would be the best mentor for you.
  2. Two is better than one – Sometimes it is not easy to select the best candidate. I was not sure about what I wanted to do in the future, so I ended up having two mentors, with completely different backgrounds, experiences and positions. Their complementary view is very useful when I am unsure about something, because it provides different opinions and perspectives. Also, don’t be discouraged by a negative answer from someone you have asked to be your mentor. It simply means it was not the right one! Theoretically, you could have as many mentors as you want, even though it may require a bit of time to meet with all of them!
  3. To Skype or not to Skype – Neither one of my mentors is in Cambridge. When I was looking for a mentor, my priority was to find an experienced scientist I had something in common with. They both work in London, which is not too far in case I want to meet them, but I am definitely satisfied by having a Skype call or two every once in a while with them. However, you may prefer to meet someone in person. Or you might prefer to meet them frequently rather then rarely. Or you might prefer to have someone of your own gender. Just figure out your priorities and consider them before choosing a mentor.
  4. Ask as much as you can – At the beginning I was convinced that my mentors didn’t want to waste time talking to me, and that they accepted my request because they didn’t know how to refuse. This is definitely untrue. If the mentor you choose has no time, he or she will simply say so. If they agree to meet you, it means he or she wants to share their time and experience with you, and you have the go ahead to discuss personal or professional problems with them. Remember, a few years ago they were exactly in the same situation. So, don’t be shy and ask as many questions you can!
  5. Give it enough time – Sometimes you will think that the last meeting you had with your mentor was not really useful, or that you didn’t have the answers you were expecting to get from it. A mentor is not supposed to give you answers; they are supposed to share their experiences and, mostly, help you to find your answers by yourself. So, before deciding to give up, give the mentorship enough time to be productive. You may need a few weeks (or months) before you really find your answers, so don’t be stressed and try to get the best out of it!

CB1About me

I am a Postdoc at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge where I study the chemical origin of extant life. I have experienced interdisciplinary research across Europe and US and tutored high school students and undergraduates in Chemistry. A strong believer in science communication, I spend my spare time attending career events and watching TED talks to improve my transferable skills. Find me on Twitter @ClaudiaBonfio!

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