Today I’m going to talk about a topic that affects everyone – from graduate students to post-docs to mentors. Mentoring. Mentoring is a key component in developing new scientists, yet as scientists embark on the faculty career pathway, no one takes the time to really teach effective mentorship even though this will become a significant aspect of one’s career as they develop into a primary investigator. Instead, the common theme throughout scientific history has simply been to train young scientists into clones that resemble their mentors. However, in today’s scientific world, we now have more scientists than ever before thanks to the increase in funding and admittance into graduate programs seen in the earlier part of this millennium and unfortunately, simply training young scientists to become clones of their mentors is no longer an effective mentoring strategy as there are many different job opportunities available for scientists today aside from the standard academic route.
Fortunately, there are scientists out there who are studying effective mentoring strategies and are trying to put together resources to teach effective mentoring strategies, but until this becomes an integral part in training young scientists, we as students and post-docs all are going to have to take a more active role our mentorship. After all, our mentors are only human and unfortunately lack the skill to read our minds to find out what kind of help we need and what is the best way to help each of us. The number one tool that can make an immediate impact in improving your relationship with your mentor is effective communication. However, before we get into effective communication strategies, we need to take a step back to be sure we first understand our own personalities, goals, and the personality of our mentor.
A couple weeks ago, I wrote a blog describing the many careers available to scientists and utilizing the MyIDP tool created by Science Careers. First, I highly recommend you make use of this tool so you can begin to visualize the career path you want to make for yourself. Once you know what area of science you want to build your career, you need to do a little research to find out what you can do while still in graduate school or your first post-doc position that can set you up to get an introductory position in that field. Once you have a plan worked out, you then should convey your career goals with your mentor so they can help you attain your goals in any way they can because regardless of what you may currently believe, your mentor really wants you to succeed…even if they use “tough love” to show it.
Now that you have completed step one and defined a career path, now it’s time to learn about your personality traits and how this may affect your communication skills with others and your success in the workforce. A very good tool for this is to take the Myers-Briggs personality test. This is not a test you can simply do online by yourself, but you need to either contact a MBTI center or suggest to your GSA or post-doc society to hold a workshop by a MBTI professional to administer the test and explain each of the personality traits. I recently attended one and it was like a HUGE lightbulb went off in my head. I was able to easily recognize the traits that applied to me, my mentor, and my colleagues and learned skills to better communicate with people who had opposite traits as me. Before I go farther, let me briefly explain the personality traits central to the MBTI personality types. There are four personality pairs: extroversion and introversion, intuition and sensing, thinking and feeling, and judging and perceiving. First, it is essential that I state that these personality traits are considered to be preferences meaning at this stage in your life you might test to be an introvert, but as you grow over the next 5 years your preferences may change to make you more of an extrovert. Additionally, you might always remain an introvert in nature; however, you may develop the skills of an extrovert to help you in certain situations. The easiest to understand is the first pair – extroversion and introversion – describes how one derives their energy and interacts with the world. As you can imagine, extroverts love to socialize with others, prefer to be around other people, and derive their energy from social interactions whereas an introvert gets their energy from being left alone to think things through. The second pair – intuition and sensing – relates to how one takes in information. For example, a sensor will look at an abstract picture and focus on the details that they can see within the picture whereas someone who is intuitive will look for hidden meanings and tends to think in terms of seeing the bigger picture. The third pair – thinking and feeling – relates to how you make decisions. A thinker relies on the facts regardless of the specific situation whereas a feeler treats each situation differently. For example, in terms of mentorship, a thinking mentor will treat everyone the same way whereas a feeling mentor will look at each person in their lab individually and tailor their interactions to each individual’s personality. The last pair – judging and perceiving – relate to how you live your outer life. For example, when planning a vacation, a judger will make a detailed itinerary listing what you will do each day and leave no room for spontaneity whereas the only plans a perceiver will make is to book the plane tickets and accommodations in advance and determine what they want to do each day as the day comes. For more thorough definitions of each personality trait, please visit the Myers Briggs Foundation website at: http://www.myersbriggs.org/.
In the next post, I’ll discuss how knowing your personality traits can help you improve your mentorship.