25 November 2013
Identifying a mentor
I realized before I started talking that I was a good example of what not to do. I didn’t see out a mentor in research; I was shanghaied. I was only rarely proactive. I was god’s fool, and made it through unscathed.
Sure, it worked for me, but I can’t recommend to students, “blunder through the minefield, it’ll all work out.” That’s not a plan, that’s just hoping.
In my own defence, it is much easier today to be proactive about identifying a mentor than it used to be. Because Google exists.
Students know that when applying to grad school, or research programs, or scholarships, they will be scrutinized by faculty before being allowed to join. Students should scrutinize their prospective faculty mentors first, before they will allow themselves to be recruited.
(Yes, I’m advocating you Google stalk potential mentors.)
When you look up a prospective mentor, look for someone productive. Grad degrees are research degrees, and you want to look at faculty’s recent track record in their research. You want someone active in their research field.
I emphasize “recent” because it’s easy to confuse “fame” with “productivity.” Some researchers may be famous for work they did years ago. It’s only when you look at their publication record that you realize they haven’t done much for ten years.
Similarly, you should look at their publications and see how many of a faculty’s papers have student authors. Try to work out how many papers their students get out, how quickly they get those papers out..
I hope that it goes without saying that any student should talk to potential mentors. In person is great, but even a phone call or Skype call can go a long way in establishing a dialogue.
If at all possible, talk to other students who have that person as their mentor. You can learn how that person works, what their expectations are. And you might get some early heads up on potential pitfalls, like any unpleasant personality traits. (Sadly, many faculty have these. Remember, research culture is not a utopia.)
Another online resource I wish I had when I was blundering through grad school was peers and faculty on social media. There are blogs written by students and faculty at each and every career stage, and they contain so many honest insights into the process of working through academic training. There are scientists on Twitter in every research field.
A good tactic might be to try to find some people who are in your peer group, and some people who are in just ahead of you. If you're an undergrad, find some grad student blogs; if you're a post-doc, read some blogs by people who have just started their tenure-track positions.
The amount of expertise, and mentoring going on through social media, is nothing short of staggering. Why wouldn't you take advantage of that?