Thursday, October 15, 2015

An experiment in "mentoring over coffee"

This past year I was part of a mentoring program for female postdocs at a neighboring institution, when I met with my mentee every month to discuss any career development issues she was interested in. As this mentoring activity was paired with management training and life coaching, we had a lot of things to discuss every time we met. We usually went for coffee after work, or brunch on the weekend, and chatted informally. By end of the program, I felt like I knew her better than the people in my lab and that we had covered a lot of awesome topics, so I tried to figure out how I could implement something similar that could be useful for my trainees.

The idea was to have a time and place to discuss career development issues that are not directly linked to the science: different career options, time management, networking, running a lab, and anything else that would interest them. I liked the informality going to a coffee shop and moving the meeting away from the lab to detach the discussion from the projects, which usually monopolize our time. So the format became a 1 hour one-on-one meeting every other month which we schedule the day before depending on our mutual schedules. It can be coffee, lunch or dinner, which I pay for. I tried to make sure that they feel like they can talk about anything they want without being judged, e.g. discuss careers outside academia without thinking I would think less of them. And I also do my best to divert the conversation away from their projects whenever science talk finds its way in (this happens all the time, since it's our default mode).

After the first cycles, I think things are going well and I made a few interesting discoveries. The first question I asked everyone was how they preferred to be mentored. I meant it both as whether the relationship we have in the lab was working for them and how they wanted to conduct our mentoring meetings, but I was mostly met with blank stares. They had never thought about it and this was uncharted territory, and part of the discussion became about defining how we wanted to proceed. So, mentees, take some time to think about what you want from your mentor and let them know.
The most surprising thing was how useful this is for me. How openly discussing their career progression and expectations helps me develop a better plan for the future of the lab. I can align expectations and timelines with what I need and try to make sure that everyone is productive in their own way. As a PI you have an overall vision of where the lab is going and where everyone fits, but that may not work out the way your think, so knowing what everyone wants is important. You may need to bring people back towards your vision or adjust their role to fit their goals and bring in someone else. I think by now I see it also as an exercise in communication to make sure that they know they can talk to me, and that there is a dedicated time to take stock of where they are in their careers. Too often I've seen years go by and postdocs suddenly realizing that they had missed deadlines for career development awards or spent too long on a very risky project or in the wrong lab.

In light of the Geoff Mercy sexual harassment scandal that has been filling the newspapers and social media in the past few days, I started wondering what it would be like for a male PI to invite a female trainee out for coffee or lunch and whether it would seem improper. At the same time, a lot of noise was made earlier this year on Capitol Hill by female staffers who were banned from one-on-one meetings with their bosses to avoid any possibility of developing a scandalous relationship, and effectively hurting their chances to become trusted advisor and their career advancement. I have mentors who are guys whom I met for coffee at meetings (hint, hint, SfN attendees) and I am just so incredibly grateful for their time. In fact, it doesn't have to be coffee at all because it's just a gift of the PI's time, time which is usually in very short supply. You can do it however you'd like and if you have any other ideas, I'd love to hear them in the comments.


  1. How very generous of you to do this -- your trainees are so lucky! I would have loved to do that with my PhD advisor and even toyed with the idea of suggesting something to him myself. But I always got the vibe that he just wasn't that interested. Now, on my way out, I realize that while he may be a good boss, he's not a good mentor. I wish more students realized the value of having a good mentor as their advisor, and not just someone who is good at managing the day-to-day stuff. :-(

    As a woman with a male advisor, I would suggest to someone who is nervous about this to meet at an on-campus coffee house or on-campus locale for lunch. Dinner sounds just a tad more risky, and I've a feeling my current advisor would never be caught dead alone with a female student over dinner.

    (I should really give myself a name, as I comment here not infrequently....)

    1. I just try to pay it forward as I have been blessed with some very good mentors. Sometimes all that it takes is asking, sometime the PI is just not the right fit for mentoring and you need to look elsewhere. I have known students to ask senior postdocs or just to go to other PIs. You never know who your next mentor will be and the more people you have in your corner, the better it is.

      As for dinner, yes, that may not be the most comfortable for male PI/female mentee combo, unless your PI is like your dad and his spouse and he take you out. Coffee and lunch have always worked great for me. Not the gym, I used to hide from my boss at the gym. He would try science talk on the treadmill. In the end the trick is finding a relaxing/comfortable place to discuss big picture things and it's really the mentor's job to make things easy.

      (You should totally pick a name)

  2. It is excellent that you are taking the time and effort to do this. I read a quote once that said that time is the best gift you can give someone because it is precious and can never be returned. Hope your trainees recognize and appreciate this. I got a lot of my mentoring from blogs and a little bit from my PIs. But nothing focused like what you are doing.

    As for the male PI/female trainee issue, perhaps they could organize meetings with two trainees (either M/F or F/F) at once, especially those that they feel have similar career goals. That would make it "safer" I suppose.

    1. Nony (Anonymous above)October 21, 2015 at 7:33 PM

      I think 1-on-1 time with the PI is important. If I were a straight male trying to implement this, I would:

      1) Announce to my group that I wanted to try this new mentoring experiment; and

      2) That anyone was free to opt out without fear of it being badly looked upon.

      Then I would invite a male trainee out for lunch/coffee first. I think this would go a long way towards allaying the fears of women in the group that such an invitation is really just a date in disguise.

      But I want to stress that other than having my first invitee be male, I would treat the men and women in my group exactly the same. In other words, I would make sure that I extend to all members of my group the same opportunities for mentoring, privacy, etc.