Science needs mentors

Taken from

Mildred Dresselhaus in her lab at MIT.
Materials scientist Mildred Dresselhaus supervised more than 60 PhD students in five decades on the MIT faculty.Credit: Micheline Pelletier/Gamma-Rapho/Getty

Maria Mitchell, the first woman to become a professional astronomer in the United States, was one; so was materials scientist Mildred Dresselhaus, the ‘Queen of carbon science’. In common with many scientists, they desired to be mentors, guiding the next generation with no expectation of return.

The concept of a mentor, indeed the word itself, can be traced at least as far back as Homer’s Odyssey. In the ancient Greek epic, the wisdom goddess Athena took the form of a man called Mentor to assume the guardianship of the young prince Telemachus while his father, Odysseus, was away fighting the Trojan War. Athena’s Mentor was not only Telemachus’s protector, but also his educator and guide.

Mentoring is one aspect of good research supervision. But it doesn’t always happen, as a 2018 Nature survey on laboratory life showed. A majority of the survey’s respondents wanted more support for mentoring and managing.

The lack of mentoring is also among the reasons for the global rise of organized doctoral-training academies, where PhD candidates learn in groups, and where they can access scholarly experience and expertise in addition to that of their main supervisor.

Some employers recognize mentoring: a number of learned societies have formal schemes that assign mentors to trainees, for example. So do scholarly publishers, through their global trade association, STM.Some hard numbers on science’s leadership problems

Nature gives its own annual awards for excellence in mentoring. These awards, now in its 15th year, are again open for nominations for two prizes: one for a mid-career mentor and the other for a lifetime of achievement in mentoring. Each year, the awards recognize mentors from a different country or region; the 2019 edition invites nominations from India, which produced 24,300 PhD graduates in 2014, the fourth-highest number in the world after the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. The deadline for applications is 6 October.

There’s no set formula for mentoring, as past winners of Nature’s awards have themselves said. Furthermore, the needs of young researchers are evolving as their environment changes. Many relatively new skills needed in research careers, such as the ability to conform to performance-management systems and run multidisciplinary research groups, would not have been relevant to some mentors earlier in their careers. But there are a number of ways in which researchers can benefit from the experience of mentors.

In addition to being a sounding board, all good mentors should be willing, where they can, to provide learning opportunities — including the chance to learn from failure. Mentors and trainees must both appreciate the value of celebrating success and of constructive criticism. And neither should see the role mainly as a ticket to prestigious speaking invitations, or to boosting publications and impact scores. At all times, the relationship needs to be one of trust and mutual respect, and of open and transparent communication.

That mentors should not expect to benefit makes outside support for mentoring all the more important. Funders and institutions would do well to invest more in mentorship training. Mentoring and mentorship could also be formally recognized as part of researcher evaluation.

For recipients of mentoring, the opportunity to share successes and talk through challenges with an experienced professional can be invaluable. For mentors, it is an opportunity to promote scholarship through the generations.

Acquiring the skills to become a good mentor takes time, an ever more precious commodity in researchers’ lives. But for mentors and would-be mentors, investment in learning will be worth the effort.