My dear Molette,

As always, it is so wonderful to hear from you, and to read your wonderful thoughts on mentors (and from the perspective of the ‘mentee’!). You are really too kind to say I’m a good mentor (and you said several nice things even better than ‘good’) – I try, but I must say your thoughts have helped me think about how I can be better.

Before I get into some of the ideas you’ve outlined, I want to mention something I find particularly refreshing in your comments. Nowhere in what you wrote do I see any hint of a distressing trend I’ve noticed in some of your peers: the quest for a guarantee. Once upon a time, those of us who entered graduate school were well aware that we could fail in obtaining a Ph.D., but those days are long gone; nobody admitted to a Ph.D. program does not come out with a degree. (This is, in part, due to a strange condition placed on graduate programs by agencies that support them: failure to ‘graduate’ every student is taken as evidence of a failed program, and therefore cannot be tolerated. The programs respond by ensuring that everyone graduates with a degree, regardless of performance.) I accept that, and certainly can live with it. But now there is a trend for postdoctoral trainees to suggest (demand?) that those they work with must guarantee success in the job market, and much as I try to ensure such success, it is sadly very much beyond my control. But that is beside the point. I think what you are suggesting is that there are things that a mentor should (indeed must) do if they take on the responsibility of mentoring. And I completely agree.

I think we need a pact between a mentor and a trainee, a pact that we should make going into the relationship. On the trainee’s side, it should say: ‘I am ultimately responsible for my career choices. I understand that there are very few guarantees of positive outcomes in science, but I will do my best to work towards such an outcome in my work, in my attitude, and in my interactions with others. If I become frustrated with my project or feel that the effort is not worth what seems to be a diminishing return, I will work even harder to steer my work in a direction that is more likely to succeed. While I hope that you will help me do that, I know that the responsibility is ultimately mine.’ Meanwhile, the mentor says: ‘I am responsible for the effective running of this laboratory, and will ensure that you have the resources you need to accomplish your work. If this is not within my means, I will work to find ways for you to collaborate to make this happen. I will be engaged intellectually in your efforts, and I will work hard to ensure that the studies you do are of interest to the broader community based on my experience and interactions. When you need help, I will do my best to give it, or find it.’ Essentially it should boil down to this: ‘We are a team. I don’t work for you, and you don’t work for me. Our interactions should be mutually beneficial, and we know that each of us must contribute to make that so.’

But you raise a more difficult issue – what should you do when the mentor you’ve chosen turns out not to be the magician you were looking for? This can be a terrible situation, as it almost always leads the trainee to lose confidence (‘others seem to do well in this lab; this must be my fault’). But in addition to mentor–trainee issues, there are matters of lab dynamics, and of course, the project itself that weigh into this. The result is often a lose–lose proposition: the trainee feels that they must stick with the project and mentor and keep trying, while the mentor increasingly loses interest in a non-productive trainee. Terrible.

The answer, I’m afraid, is in the hands of the trainee. Time is the most valuable thing we have (trust me – I’m an old guy), and the way you spend your time doing science is crucial for your development. As we’ve discussed, the responsibility for your career is yours, and if this environment is not optimal, you have to change it. The status quo has no status, and practically no quo.

That said, there are a few changes to consider. Are there advantages to staying in the lab? If so, can you get help from another source – a more senior trainee or another mentor? Can you alter the project in a way to make it more productive (and at least as exciting)? Or might there be another project you can work on? Alternatively, it may just be time to find another home. I know, not always easy, but it may be necessary.

Here’s a little secret from my own experience. My entrance into science was very rocky, to say the least. As an undergraduate, I was fired from my first lab job (I deserved it – long story, but it involved the first post-Broadway production of a popular play), but I landed another that worked out really well. I went off to grad school and didn’t do well (so I thought), and left to return to the undergrad lab where I completed my degree. As it happened, decades later, I occasionally see my old professors from the first grad school, who remembered me (I was amazed!) and told me they had been sorry to see me go (but were very glad that it had all ended well). I landed a great job, and things have been terrific ever since.

So what did I get from my mentors? My Ph.D. mentor, Prof. Wharf Rat, was brilliant, but never really gave me a project – my job was to ‘go find something interesting to work on.’ I’d read and study, ask advice from anyone I could find, shadow people for techniques, and then, when an experiment I thought was really interesting worked, my mentor would shut me down (‘The results are clean, but I’m not excited.’) So I kept at it. Then one day I did an experiment while my mentor was out of town, and although I was very excited, nobody else seemed to think it was particularly intriguing. I showed it to Dr. Wharf Rat when he returned. He leaned back in his chair and said, ‘If you figure this out, you’ll get your degree.’ I did, and I did.

Thinking back, there were several mentors during my graduate training, and several since. Some taught me critical thinking, some taught me how to actually do things in the lab, and some taught me how to deal with the day-to-day (and long term) frustrations. In the end, nobody told me what to do or how to do it – they gave me suggestions for the development of my career (the advice was usually terrific in retrospect, but I have to admit I didn’t always take it). But again, thinking back, here’s what I learned: what my mentors gave me was an intellectual environment in which I could work, explore, and yes, grow. And the thing is, that’s all I can do to help my own trainees. We’re a team, and I have an important role in that team, but I don’t do it alone.

So, Molette, I guess my advice to you and your peers is to do whatever you can to obtain the environment you need to develop your own skills and ultimately, your own career. Nobody can do that for you. Unfortunately, there are those ‘mentors’ who obstruct the creation of such an environment, whether from their own insecurities, deficiencies, or ideology. Remember why you’re doing this, and then make it happen. If that environment simply does not exist for us now (I know it does for you, but we’re talking the ‘royal us’) then I think you are right – get out and find one that is a place where you can think, work, and explore. Ultimately, it is the only real pleasure we get!

Lovely to chat with you. I’m looking forward to hearing about your further ideas!

Love,

Uncle Mole