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Research careers – why mentorship matters

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by Cancer Research UK | Analysis

5 March 2024

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Careers
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For the first instalment in our new research careers column, Ally Walters explores the importance of mentorship and asks why the act of finding a person who could be so deeply valuable to your career can be so tricky…

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Research Careers


While attending a conference, an esteemed scientist rises to give a suitably rousing talk after receiving a lifetime achievement award – then comes the heartfelt nod to a mentor.

“…without whom I would never have stayed the course/ got the inspiration to dig deep/ had any wind beneath my wings…” Delete as appropriate – you know the drill.  I dare say many of you have been in this position. I know I have… many times.

And there is a reason for that – so many successful scientists don’t get where they are on their own. They owe much of their success to the mentors they’ve worked with along the way.

Many successful scientists don’t get where they are on their own. They owe much of their success to the mentors they’ve worked with along the way

A similar observation arose from a panel at a recent CRUK careers event for postdocs, where speakers from diverse cancer research-related careers waxed lyrical about the boost mentors have given them at various stages of their professional (and sometimes personal) journeys. In the Q&A session after this panel, an attendee raised her hand and asked: “But, how do you go about finding a mentor?”

A very pertinent question, I thought.

I was in academia as a PhD student, postdoc, and project manager for a total of 17 years. I never had a mentor. Sure, I was fortunate to have PhD and postdoc supervisors who were supportive, encouraging, and inspiring, but I have since come to understand that a manager is not a mentor.

Think mentor, not manager

A mentor is someone who uses their own experience to support the personal development of a mentee and can adopt a wide variety of roles, from acting as a sounding board and role-model to being a critical friend. They are perfectly placed to recognise your personal strengths and help you use them to become successful – whatever that means for you.

A mentoring relationship should be a space for reflection and exploration where the mentee determines the focus of conversations based on their goals. Importantly, a mentor should be someone who provides an unbiased external view. This is why your manager, while responsible for having personal development conversations with you as part of their role as your supervisor, should not be your mentor. A mentor can be someone who works in your field, but cross-sector mentoring also has many benefits. Bringing an outside perspective to your career can really help develop broader skillsets.

CRUK’s Women of Influence mentorship programme is a case-in-point here. The scheme pairs academic researchers with leading businesswomen working across a diverse range of sectors as mentors. I have seen firsthand how an outside perspective provided by mentors in this programme helps researchers to enhance their self-confidence, leadership, and decision-making skills.

Careers
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Science playing catch-up

Those in the business world have long extolled the virtues of providing mentoring programmes to employees and there’s solid data to show a good return on investment when it comes to mentoring. Some 86% of Fortune 500 companies have mentoring programmes, and that rises to a staggering 100% for Fortune 50.

While there are some great examples of formal mentoring programmes offered by institutions and funders in academia – many of them aimed at supporting the career progression of under-represented groups – it’s clear that as a sector, academia is well behind business in embracing the value of mentorship for its workforce. Provision of mentoring programmes in academia is, I’d argue, patchy at best.

So, to return to the question posed at our recent research careers event – how do you find a mentor?

If you are fortunate enough to be at an institution or supported by a funder who provides access to a mentoring programme, grab the opportunity with both hands and go for it. However, if you are among the many who don’t have access to a formal programme, mentorship shouldn’t feel out of reach. Though it will certainly take more effort – and often a good helping of courage – being proactive about finding a mentor for yourself could pay real dividends.

Build relationships and bag your own…

Start by identifying your overall goals and work from there. It’s all about identifying someone you think you could learn from, taking steps towards building a relationship and asking them.

Individuals within academia should feel empowered to contribute to the culture of personal development and mentorship by actively seeking a mentor

If you want help and advice that’s specific to your research area, use conferences, meetings, and connection through collaborators to find someone who fits the bill. If you are thinking more broadly about skills related to leadership, managing people, building networks and relationships, you can widen your search to think about potential mentors in other areas.  Look for opportunities to network outside your field. Institution-wide events, particularly those that bring in local business leaders and entrepreneurs, offer a chance to broaden your network and meet potential mentors from inside and outside academia. You can also leverage vast online professional networks through platforms like LinkedIn or networks focussed on underrepresented groups such as the 93% club.

In an ideal world, all researchers would have access to a formal mentoring programme and more should be done by institutions and funders to make this a reality. However, individuals within academia should feel empowered to contribute to the culture of personal development and mentorship by actively seeking a mentor.

And brilliantly, this act will not only benefit you. Studies show that more than 80% of mentees go on to become mentors so the more researchers who take steps to find mentorship now, the brighter the future looks for the next generation.

Ally Walters

Author

Dr Ally Walters

Ally is a Research Programme Manager for Discovery Research & Research Careers at Cancer Research UK

We really want to hear from you about your challenges and successes with mentorship. If you have a mentor, how did you find yours? Have you any tips to help others find that special person? If you are a mentor, what approaches have worked for you… anything mentor related, we’d like to hear it. Just leave a comment in the box below.

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