In November 2016, I obtained my Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology from Tulane University in the School of Medicine. On the final day of my defense, I was flooded by memories of how I “got to now,” and the main theme of my collective experiences and culminating success was attributed to the mentorship I received. I couldn’t get this realization out of my brain, so I’ll share my experiences with you in hopes that you will glean some insights as you make decisions for the right mentor and lab.
In short, I believe that it is important to find a mentor who understands your personal needs as a mentee, shares similar expectations of the mentoring relationship and is invested in your success.
I might not have begun a career in research if it weren’t for the influence of my undergraduate mentor. My mentor was a budding new faculty member at a small, primarily undergraduate institution. I was his first research student, hired on as a work-study assistant. He was passionate about his research, which was inspiring, and it became obvious he was equally passionate about my development as a student and scientist. Two and a half years passed quickly and my hard work and my mentor’s dedication began to pay dividends. During my time as an undergraduate researcher, I had the opportunity to present my research at regional, state and national conferences. I also won a national scholarship award for my research, landed a high-profile internship at the Centers for Disease Control and ultimately, obtained a full scholarship for my Ph.D. My success was directly tied to my mentor’s commitment to my development - he encouraged me to tackle rigorous challenges in research and in classroom content, pushed my critical thinking as a scholar and researcher, and provided me with opportunities I wouldn’t have considered on my own. He devoted time, energy, and counseling to my well being as a fledgling professional in the world of science.
I began my Ph.D. with a well-defined idea of a mentoring relationship. Unfortunately, I also had a narrow idea of the kind of research I wanted to be involved in and only a few labs at my institution met my specific scientific criteria. Despite seeing early warning signs during my rotation, I decided to join one of those labs instead of broadening my research interests. In hindsight, it’s easy for me to see where I went wrong. I underestimated how much the people I worked with would impact my success. I spent two years working in an unhealthy environment - the lab was in constant turmoil and transition and I was unhappy with my day-to-day interactions, especially with my mentor who often was unavailable. When we did meet, he was disinterested or made disparaging remarks. To make matters worse, my research wasn’t going anywhere. I wanted to quit graduate school altogether. Ultimately, I made the difficult decision to seek a fresh start by finding a new lab, knowing that I’d lose my investment of work and potential publications. However, this time I chose to focus on a healthy working environment and a mentor who was invested in my success rather than focusing only on scientific interest.
After a few rotations, I finally found what – and who – I was looking for. I found a mentor who equally valued scientific achievement and mentoring, understood my needs as a mentee, and whose door was always open. The lab had a respectful, fun and congenial “work hard, play hard” kind of attitude while maintaining scientific rigor. Within a few short months, I found my stride; my research began progressing and the personal recognition soon followed. In 2014, I was awarded the ASM Robert D. Watkins Graduate Research Fellowship and in 2015, I participated in the NIH INRO research fellows program. By the time I graduated, I received numerous competitive awards and presented my work at several national conferences.
Each mentoring relationship will look a little different because every mentor has a unique personality and mentoring style, and each mentee has different needs. That being said, I believe there are some universal guidelines you can follow that will increase your chances of building and maintaining a successful mentoring relationship.
Find a mentor who:
Meets Your Expectations: Recognize that your mentor is juggling multiple responsibilities - managing a lab, attempting to secure funding and/or tenure, teaching, fulfilling other faculty responsibilities, and mentoring, perhaps multiple lab members. It’s important to keep this in mind when you feel like your mentor may be falling short of your expectations. It’s more important when selecting a lab environment - think about the size of the lab, your mentor’s position within the university (are they a Junior Faculty or Department Chair), and any other obligations they may have outside the university that could impact their overall availability to you.
Shares Your Communication Style: Some mentors maintain an open door policy where the casual drop-in meeting is encouraged. Other mentors might prefer scheduled meetings. Some mentors never check or respond to emails, while others will only remember something in written form. Figure out early how your mentor prefers to communicate. Ideally, you and your mentor will share a communication style, but if not, be adaptable so you can communicate efficiently.
Understands Your Needs as a Mentee: Each mentee will have unique needs based on their personality and level of research experience. Try to learn quickly what your needs are and communicate them early in the mentoring relationship. Some mentees require weekly or daily meetings, while others meet with their mentor once a month.
Invests in Your Success: A good mentor recognizes that through your development, both parties will succeed.
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J. Alan Goggins is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Microbiology and Immunology Department at Tulane University School of Medicine. Alan’s research focuses on various aspects of the immune response to chronic Salmonella infection, including the contribution of thymic function in protective immunity. Alan has an undergraduate degree in Environmental Health from Western Carolina University, where his research focused on LaCrosse Virus ecology and vector biology.