Advice from Mentors

 

This page describes some of the advice that I've received from my faculty mentors, which has influenced my mentoring philosophy.

 

Mentoring is a difficult skill to master, but leadership training can be incredibly helpful in perfecting those skills. Learning from my mentors has also been incredibly useful in furthering my own development as a mentor.

Introduction

 

Over the years I have had many productive discussions with faculty members on how to succeed in academia, what it is like to be a tenure-track or tenured faculty member, and how to navigate teaching, research, and service responsibilities. Much of the advice I received from my mentors has been incredibly useful to me and continues to inform my professional development. I have summarized some of that advice into the following categories:

 

Time Management
The Transition to Faculty
Challenges
Teaching and Mentoring
Service

 

Click on any of the above links to jump to a specific section or click here for my conclusions.

 

 
 
Time Management

 

Some of the best advice I have received was about organization and time management, which are some of the most important skills to cultivate. My mentors have always encouraged me to set priorities for what I want to accomplish each year. I have been encouraged to think about my own deeply rooted core values for my life and my career and how these values will inform my priorities. These priorities should then inform my long-term and short-term goals, allowing me to successfully manage not only all my obligatory tasks, but all the extra activities that I might want to do. It has also been really helpful to get advice about learning to say 'no' to some of the things that people ask. I sometimes find it difficult to say no on the spot, so I have been encouraged to try telling people that I will get back to them about it. Not answering right away should give me the space I need to assess whether or not the activity will help further my goals or will just be another time commitment that I wish I hadn't accepted. Setting realistic goals for the year, and for each week, helps me to balance tasks that need to be done with activities that I would like to do. I have also found it important to schedule time for leisure and other important life activities, like exercising. Making space in my schedule to interact with other people can seem silly, but these interactions can take time that I don't anticipate, and I think they are very important to a successful career. Ultimately, my mentors have helped me to realize that the more I can plan ahead, the better I will be able to manage my time so that I can accomplish all the goals that I have set.

 
The Transition to Faculty

 

It can be very stressful to start out as a new faculty member. There are a lot of new duties and responsibilities to assimilate; there is anxiety over learning the rules and culture of a new institution, as well as stress in applying for grants and building a lab. I have been told that it is easy to feel young, and to feel like you need to prove yourself to your new colleagues. Luckily, my mentors have said that these early stresses tend to fade over time and it can be easy to forget how nerve-racking it was to start out as a new faculty member. I have been told that acting confident, even if I'm nervous, can really help. I should have confidence in my skills and trust that my colleagues will see the merit in my work.

 
Challenges

 

There are many challenges in academic positions that can be stressful to deal with, but my mentors advised me that being aware of the types of challenges that I could face will help in being prepared to deal with them. Some of the challenges are personal, some professional, and some organizational.

 

It can be challenging to find the balance between research, teaching, and other responsibilities. Making sure that your lab is running smoothly is a skill that takes time to perfect. I will need to become proficient in dealing with administrative responsibilities, paperwork, and budgeting. One good piece of advice that I have received is to get the lab operating budget down to the bare bones early on. It will save time and money in the long run, especially if I experience a period of low grant support. My mentors have also told me to be prepared to deal with ethical issues, such as sexual harassment in the workplace. They suggested that knowing the resources that are available to help me and thinking through what I might do in these situations if they should occur, will help me to deal with these challenges as they arise.

 

I have also been told that it can be difficult at the outset of a career to attract good people to work in your lab, but it is the most important thing that anyone can do to elevate their research program. Many faculty members have suggested that surrounding myself with good people will do wonders for my career. Additionally, once I have excellent people in my lab, my mentors have warned me that I will become invested in their success and it will be bittersweet to see them leave. Learning to deal with the turnover in a lab can be difficult. Conversely, working with people, both students and collaborators, has its own set of challenges. My advisors have told me that it is important to be aware of problems in the lab early on, and to figure out how to deal with the lab dynamics. It can be helpful to seek training in leadership and mentoring. Being able to spot difficult people early on will hopefully help me to avoid problems later. In the beginning of my career, I may not have the luxury to pick and choose my collaborators, but as I advance in my career it will be easier to pursue the types of collaborations that reflect my goals, priorities, and values and to choose collaborators who are easy to work with.

 

Lots of successful people have admitted to doubting themselves and suffering from impostor syndrome. Various people have told me that the feeling may never fully go away, but it can be helpful to realize that everyone goes through this at some point and that I am not the only person to feel this way. Learning to deal with stress in a positive way will be a helpful skill for me to cultivate over the course of my career.

 
Teaching and Mentoring

 

Education, both formal and informal, is critically important to the mission of institutions of higher learning. In particular, there is a much greater emphasis on effective teaching strategies at the university level than there has been in previous years. Many faculty members had no formal training in teaching when they started, but many universities now offer additional teacher training, which I have been encouraged to take advantage of. My mentors have also advised me to collaborate with other teachers, as they can often introduce you to useful new techniques. When writing a teaching statement, I have been advised that there is a grey area between teaching and mentoring, that is also present when applying for tenure, but it is important to show that I have thought about both aspects of teaching.

 

Mentoring can be incredibly challenging as every individual is unique and the approach needs to be tailored to match the particular person. I have been told that the most important thing is to be encouraging and to cultivate an environment where people feel comfortable, respected, and heard. Creating a supportive research environment goes a long way to helping people to develop as scientists. Various people have suggested that I will also need to be gently pushy about my expectations for students. Clear expectations are very important to healthy professional relationships. One of my professors suggested that students should submit a written update ahead of weekly meetings, which will serve as a gentle motivation for the student to be prepared ahead of the meeting. It is also motivating for the professor to provide feedback ahead of the next weekly meeting. Mutual respect and accountability will help motivate both student and professor to work productively together. I have also been told that it is important to encourage graduate students to help each other and collaborate on projects if possible. Mentors have suggested that I should encourage all graduate students to mentor an undergraduate student, at least once during their program, so they can experience the process of mentoring a student for themselves.

 

When dealing with undergraduate students, professors have suggested that it is important to think both of what the students want to get out of the class as well as what I want to teach. The learning objectives should serve as the intersection of these goals for the class. My mentors have indicated that I will need to develop my own teaching style based on what works best for me. Some students might expect me to know all the answers, but it’s important for me to get comfortable saying that I don’t know the answer, as long as I always follow up by finding the answer and reporting it back to the class. As a teacher, I am still learning in the classroom and it is valuable to find out which questions I don’t know the answer to and then get those answers. One professor even suggested that I challenge students to ask questions that I don’t know the answer to. One big mistake that professors have told me to avoid is to criticize wrong answers. It is more important to create an environment where students aren't afraid to engage with the material than to have everyone get the right answer right away.

 

Non-majors classes can be very general, but also very similar to mentoring. All the students need to have a basic level of understanding of the topic, but I can also encouraging students to delve deeper into a sub-topic that interests them. It is great to see students discover new interests and things about themselves through these courses. The motivation to learn is more subtle, and it is primarily their own interests that drive them to succeed. Majors classes are much more in depth and experiential. It is important to use a variety of in-class methods to keep different kinds of learners engaged. Professors have suggested that when lecturing, it helps to ask lots of questions to keep students engaged, although it can be more difficult in larger classes. Active learning exercises can be particularly important to help students understand the importance of the topic. Using role-playing scenarios can get students to appreciate other perspectives of an issue. For example, in small breakout groups, each student has a role in a town meeting in rural Thailand about malarial vaccine development with roles such as villagers, wealthy business people, physicians, anthropologists, etc. Similarly, debates can get students involved in thinking about the broader implications of a topic. My mentors have indicated that it is important to incorporate a lot of group work into classes so that students will learn how to work with others and review the work of others. These soft skills are critical in every discipline and especially in science. It can be useful to keep the same groups throughout a semester so that students get to know each other and feel comfortable participating. Sometimes students can be resistant to trying new learning activities, but if I succeed in creating a supportive classroom environment, they will feel more comfortable to try something new.

 
Service

 

Service is very important to my professional life. Some of the best advice I have received about service is that since it is usually part of any academic job, it’s best to try to do service that is important to me. If I can, I should try to do service that reflects what I'm passionate about. Service is an opportunity to influence people’s life and career trajectory in a really positive way and my mentors have encouraged me to take those opportunities seriously.

 
Conclusions

 

While many sources like to remind graduate students of the terrible job market for academics, it can be extremely refreshing to be reminded that being an academic is a really exciting career with a lot of excellent benefits. Having a career in academia is always fresh, new, and exciting. The salary is good, but the job security is great. I have been told that the freedom to be creative in designing experiments and the opportunity to work with really exceptional people are the best parts of the job. My professors have also encouraged me to travel to conferences and learn about the most recent work in my field, as a way to keep motivated in my own work.  All in all, it's a great position to strive for, but it is important to remember that the future is uncertain. One great way that my mentors have suggested for me to ensure that I always have opportunities available is to have a broad skill set. Doing diverse projects will help me to gain an extensive portfolio of experiences. Finally, I have been advised not to be afraid to take some risks. Things may not always work out the way I expect, but I should always be ready to take advantage of any interesting opportunities that come along.

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