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How to Succeed in Academics
By Linda L. McCabe, Edward R. B. McCabe
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2010 the Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Choosing a Mentor
Having a mentor is the key to success in academic life. Choosing the right mentors and knowing when to go to them for advice is crucial. We all make mistakes, but we need to let our mentors help us learn from these mistakes and move on with our lives and our careers. While there are no do-overs, there are opportunities to excel, to make wise choices, and to make the most of a bad situation. Just as none of us can do everything well, you may need more than one mentor to cover all aspects of your academic career. Your mentor should not be your friend. Your mentor should challenge you to reach higher, work harder, and go farther than you dreamed possible, at the same time making you aware of the realities of academic life. In seventy years of combined experience in academia, we've made our share of mistakes. That said, an academic life is very rewarding, and the best part is being a mentor yourself. Some of our best moments occur when a current or former trainee or junior colleague asks for advice, shows insight, or shares a success. The best way to pay your mentors back is to be the best mentor you can be!
Choosing a Research Mentor
Lee chose Dr. Johnson as her research mentor because Dr. Johnson was well published and was rumored to be in contention for a Nobel prize. Lee wanted the stimulation of such an exciting research environment. As a postdoctoral fellow, she was assigned to work on a project with two PhD postdoctoral fellows and two junior faculty members. Over three years, Lee was given only menial tasks and for her efforts received only middle authorship on the major paper produced by her group. When looking for a research mentor, Lee should have met with trainees in each of the groups in which she had an interest. She should have determined if the trainees had their own research project for which they were solely responsible for the work and would be given first authorship on any publication. While a major paper is prestigious, middle authorship is not, and directing your own project and having first authorship are more important.
QUALITIES OF A GOOD MENTOR
The most important quality of a good mentor is the ability to take the "me" out of "mentor." In other words, a mentor should put the interests of the mentee above their own self-interest. Each of us owes a great deal to those who have helped us along the way. Unfortunately, not everyone recognizes their debt to their mentors, or their obligations to their mentee.
Your Mentor Should Have Your Best Interests in Mind
Chris has just started as a new assistant professor. His mentor, the department chair, is constantly providing "opportunities" for Chris. These include a heavier teaching load than anyone in the department, membership on several time-consuming committees, and administrative responsibilities within the department. Chris worries that these activities take time that should be spent on research or creative projects. He worries that when the time comes for a promotion and tenure decision, it will not be favorable. Assistant professors in other departments seem to teach less, participate on only one committee, and have no departmental administrative responsibilities. When Chris confronts his department chair, he is told not to worry. Not reassured, he speaks to a senior professor in another department, who tells Chris that his predecessors were all denied promotion and tenure due to lack of research and creative activity. Chris and the senior professor meet with Chris's chair. The three of them agree on a reduction in Chris's teaching load and committee and administrative commitments so he can devote more time to his research/creative activity.
A mentor should have personal integrity. All personal confidences from the mentee should remain confidential, unless the mentee gives the mentor permission to share information with a particular individual. The mentee should be comfortable sharing successes and problems with their mentor, knowing that the mentor will maintain confidentiality.
A positive outlook on the part of the mentor is helpful. Typically, mentees seek out their mentors for advice when things are not going well. Mentors need to respond with support and encouragement and not complain about their own problems.
The mentor's ability to provide support and training in your chosen field is important. Your mentor should be successful in their academic career and should have completed appropriate training. They should provide training in principles, judgment, and perspective, in addition to research skills. They should introduce you to colleagues in your field.
Appropriate Mentoring Behavior at Professional Meetings
Kelly was a new member in the research group and was pleased to be presenting at a national professional meeting. In addition to practicing the presentations of each member of the research group, the mentor discussed expectations at the meeting. All members of the group would attend the entire sessions in which group members presented. All members of the group would attend the social events of the meeting, including the opening mixer, the department's reception, and the research group's annual dinner for current and former members. The mentor explained that each group member should support the other members during their presentations, and provide opportunities for the mentor to introduce group members to other colleagues and develop their own professional network.
Mentors should provide opportunities for teaching, reviewing manuscripts and grant proposals, serving on committees, and developing leadership and mentoring skills.
Choose a Mentor Who Is Interested in Your Future
Kim was thrilled to be selected to join the highest-profile group in his training program. His mentor was expected to win the most coveted prize in their discipline. What Kim didn't know was that the prize would come from the desperately hard work of the trainees, many of whom would not receive any credit for their efforts. Kim was assigned a repetitive task that was a small part of a very large research program. There was no independent project for Kim to develop, nor would he gain experience in writing grants and manuscripts, presenting at professional meetings, or sharpening any other skills. Kim's mentor did win the prize while Kim was a trainee. When it came time for Kim to apply for his next position, his advisor was too busy being celebrated to send letters of reference or to speak to colleagues about Kim. In updating his curriculum vitae, Kim found little to add from this training period. Kim's mentor might or might not have won the prize without Kim's hard work. It is certain that Kim had been used by an advisor who was not a mentor and who had no interest in Kim's career.
Creative problem solving is an important characteristic of a mentor. This includes helping the mentee to focus, set short-term and longterm goals, and measure progress. The mentor can help the mentee understand that assessing progress may require looking back one year or as many as five years. A long-term goal, such as promotion and tenure, may seem quite vague. We all have a tendency to procrastinate and expect that we can work hard at the last minute and succeed. This does not work with promotion and tenure, where you are being judged on your whole career and your regional and national reputation. A mentor can help the mentee understand what is required for promotion and tenure and how to break that long-term goal into several short-term goals that are easier to visualize and to achieve. These shorter-term goals should be reviewed at least annually to ensure progress toward the long-term goal. By having more frequent meetings, the mentor can help the mentee develop better strategies for success if the mentee is falling behind in attaining short-term goals.
Career Development Takes Time
Kim is a physician who is beginning a postdoctoral fellowship to receive training in a clinical subspecialty and in research. Her long-term goal is to be a "triple threat"—a physician/researcher/educator in a medical school. Having acquired clinical skills during four years of medical school and three years of a specialty residency, Kim is very comfortable taking care of patients. Entering a research setting for the first time has totally perplexed her. All the other members of the research group are comfortable with their projects, methods, and abilities. Kim's initial research attempts lead to one failure after another. She meets with her mentor to reconsider her decision to pursue research. Her mentor asks Kim to consider how long she spent developing her clinical skills. The mentor notes that many of the postdoctoral fellows have had seven or more years doing research—equivalent in time to her clinical training—and everyone in the group was a research neophyte at one time. Kim just needs to put as much effort into research as she has put into mastering clinical medicine.
To establish a national reputation, one needs invitations to speak at other academic institutions around the country and at national meetings, publications in nationally recognized journals, service as a reviewer for nationally recognized journals, book authorship or editorship, committee membership for national professional organizations, and/or job offers from other academic institutions (see table 1).
ADDITIONAL QUALITIES OF A GOOD MENTOR
Mentors should help mentees identify their strengths and weaknesses and learn how to deal with their weaknesses. They should also help mentees deal with institutional realities. Mentors should complement their mentees. If a mentee is struggling to balance a career with a new baby, a mentor with multiple children and a successful career might be appropriate. A mentee who is dedicated to teaching to the point of excluding all other professional endeavors would do well to have a mentor who wins teaching awards and is the best-funded researcher in the department. A mentee who would like to dedicate herself to institutional and professional society committee work needs a mentor who believes there was never a committee worth the time of a junior faculty member. The mentee who lacks focus and is unable to complete any task should have a mentor who excels in time management and will not accept the mentee's excuses. Such mentors might not be selected by the mentees who need them and may have to be appointed by the department chair.
One aspect of an academic career often difficult for young people to achieve is focus. As part of identifying goals, a mentor can help a mentee to select an area of scholarship. The mentor then guides the mentee in the acquisition of expertise on this topic. Mentees establishing their professional reputation in this area need to understand that they need to be very careful. While it takes years to establish a reputation, one misstep can ruin a career. Academic professionals need to trust their colleagues, and when this trust is threatened, the effect can be devastating.
Consulting and clinical work can bring more rapid, wider, and more remunerative recognition than research. Rewards for teaching and curriculum development may be less concrete. Support for the academic infrastructure through committee work and administration can be time-consuming and may not be recognized. However, each of these activities is essential to the development of your academic career and to the support of your institution and your discipline.
A good mentor is measured by the success of their mentees. Good mentors encourage excellence and scientific integrity on the part of their mentee. If you are considering mentors, look at the first authors of prior publications of potential mentors. Have these first authors gone on to develop independent careers?
Celebrate a Mentees Success
Dr. Jones was the research mentor for both Kelly and Stacey. Kelly was promoted to faculty at the mentees' original institution, while Stacey left for a faculty position at another institution. Dr. Jones left to chair a department a third institution. She sought funding for an endowed chair for her position meaning that the donation would be invested and would support Dr. Jones and her successor chairs. Kelly called Dr. Jones to say that he had received an endowed chair. Dr. Jones was proud of Kelly, and the fact that her mentee received an endowed chair before she did was unimportant. What was important was that Kelly's abilities had been recognized by a donor. Stacey soon e-mailed Dr. Jones to invite her to attend the celebration of Staceys own endowed chair. Dr. Jones was honored to be included and enjoyed the opportunity to celebrate Stacey. When Dr. Jones obtained funding for her endowed chair, Kelly and Stacey joked that they had taught her a thing or two about getting an endowed chair. Dr. Jones replied that she still had a lot to learn and was glad to have Kelly and Stacey to teach her.
Mentors not only are concerned with the current stage of their mentee's career but are also proactive, encouraging their mentee to develop an independent career path. They should commit to assisting the mentee in making the next move in their career. This involves providing opportunities for the mentee to write (e.g., abstracts for professional meetings, manuscripts, grant proposals) and to present their work at professional meetings. Mentors should nominate the mentee for awards, help the mentee plan for their next career move, and serve as a reference for the mentee.
Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
Dana excelled as a graduate student and was flattered when his mentor asked him to stay on as a postdoctoral fellow to continue his project. Dana applied to a number of funding sources within and outside of the institution for support of his fellowship, and was shocked when each request was denied. He did not understand that funding sources were looking for independence from the graduate school mentor, not just more of the same. The funding sources were actually looking out for Dana's best interests, encouraging him to develop his own independent line of research.
Junior faculty members should have a mentor dedicated to helping them achieve promotion to associate professor and attain tenure. This mentor should be outside the section, division, or department so they will have no conflict of interest and be interested solely in the faculty member's success in the tenure track. Each institution has its own rules for promotion and tenure. Some general criteria include a national reputation, creative products (e.g., publications and inventions), quality of teaching, and committee service.
Robin, having worked hard as a fellow in Dr. Stevens's laboratory, had just moved to another school to be an assistant professor. He planned to continue one of the projects he had developed as a fellow. Dr. Stevens called Robin weekly to check on his research progress and to discuss his results. Robin appreciated Dr. Stevens's interest in his research. When Dr. Stevens asked him to send his raw data to her electronically, he did not hesitate. A few months later, as Robin was preparing an abstract on his research for a meeting, a colleague came by with the latest issue of a major journal to show Robin an article with his data and Dr. Stevens as senior author. Clearly, Dr. Stevens took advantage of her relationship with Robin and did not encourage Robin's independence. Even if Dr. Stevens included Robin as a coauthor, her behavior would be inappropriate. At this point, Robin should seek advice from his other mentors at his former institution, as well as his current mentors. With these advisors, Robin should confront Dr. Stevens and demand that she submit an erratum to the journal, making Robin the first or senior author, depending on how much data other than Robin's was included in the paper. If Dr. Stevens is unwilling to do this, Robin and his mentors should contact the journal editor and ask for assistance. The editor will contact Dr. Stevens and demand that the authorship be revised and that letters from each of the authors and Robin be provided to the editor, indicating agreement with the revised authorship. The editor will then print an erratum with the new authorship.
When Kerry enters Dr. Johnson's group as a junior faculty member, they agree to collaborate on one topic and allow Kerry to develop a second topic independently. After three years, Kerry has several publications and some independent funding and is ready to start her own group. She moves into independent space and recruits her own trainees. She continues to collaborate with Dr. Johnson on their joint project, and both are authors on the papers that result. Kerry continues to work independently on her other project. While Dr. Johnson is available to discuss ideas, read rough drafts of manuscripts and grants, and help with priorities and goal setting, she is not a co-author on these papers or a collaborator on the grants. If Dr. Johnson is invited to speak on this topic, she refuses and insists that Kerry is the expert.
SELECTING A MENTOR
Selecting a mentor for one particular characteristic is never a good idea. You wouldn't buy a car just because it had the engine you wanted; rather, you would consider all the attributes of the vehicle. The same is true of mentors. We feel that everyone, regardless of gender or ethnocultural group membership, has the same issues. We have seen trainees select mentors based on a single characteristic, such as ethnocultural group membership or gender, and discover that they made a big mistake. Examine the entire package, not just one characteristic, when you search for a mentor.
Excerpted from How to Succeed in Academics by Linda L. McCabe, Edward R. B. McCabe. Copyright © 2010 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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