Getting the Most Out of Your Mentor

"The mentor-trainee relationship is a one-to-one relationship, and the mentor should see more potential in you than you can see in yourself," said Jonathan Wiest, PhD, the director of the Center for Cancer Training at National Cancer Institute and a recipient of the NIH Director's Award for Mentoring.

The Mentor’s Responsibility

Your faculty mentor or PI is responsible for guiding and monitoring your training and progress as a postdoc. He or she must set clear expectations and ensure that you know what your responsibilities are as a postdoc. Your mentor must regularly and frequently communicate with you, provide regular and timely assessments of your performance, and provide career advice. Faculty should be aware that written annual progress assessments are now required by contract. The Postdoc Office has developed a "Postdoctoral Scholar Annual Review" form with guidelines. Your PI also should help you build the network of connections you will need to take the next step in your career when you finish your postdoc.

The Postdoc’s Responsibility

As the National Postdoc Association advises, “The most successful mentoring relationships are those in which the mentee takes initiative and truly drives the mentoring partnership. It is important that the mentee helps determine the pace, route and destination of the partnership. This will allow the mentor to offer insights and counsel that are customized to the mentee's objectives. Moreover, the mentee must realize that the mentor is a guide and not the one responsible for the mentee's actions. The mentor can only open the doors and introduce the mentee to the right situations. The mentee also needs to be proactive in searching for secondary mentors and other opportunities that will allow the growth and development of their own professional network.”

Here are some ideas for getting the most from your mentor

Make time to meet regularly with your PI. Don’t wait around for your mentor to schedule meetings with you; you will probably need to ask for their time. Your mentor is a very busy person and mentoring you may not be his/her top priority, but if you take the initiative, most PIs will respond and do their best to help you. After all, your success is also their success. When you do meet with your mentor, be prepared with questions and have your career goals in mind. Preparing an Individual Development Plan is an excellent way to get your thoughts together for these important conversations.

Get started on your IDP early! Research by Sigma Xi has shown that postdocs who complete an Individual Development Plan, a tool for setting and marking progress toward personal and research goals, are more productive, have less conflict with their mentors, and are more satisfied with their postdoc experience. Postdocs at UCSF are strongly encouraged to complete an IDP with their mentor early in their postdoc appointment, and using an IDP may even soon be a required exercise for postdocs on certain types of grant support.

Listen and be willing to take criticism. Your mentor may not always have exclusively positive things to say about where your research is going or your progress in the lab, but this is not intended to deflate your ego. Learn from your mistakes and be open to your mentor’s guidance.

Take advantage of opportunities for career planning/development activities. Attending professional conferences and seminars as well as workshops hosted by the Postdoc Office, the Office of Career and Professional Development, the Postdoctoral Scholars' Association, and other campus organizations is essential for building your knowledge base and professional network. Your mentor should be able to recommend which conferences and seminars will benefit you the most.

Find a second or even a third mentor if you aren’t getting everything you need from your PI. Other, more senior postdocs in your lab can be great second mentors. Look also to other faculty members and colleagues who are doing work you are interested in on or off campus. The mentor-mentee relationship does not need to be exclusive. If you are not getting all the guidance you need from your PI, seek out others who can advise you and help you achieve your goals. However, if you encounter significant and unmanageable challenges with your PI, remember that there are numerous resources available at UCSF to help you navigate difficulties in your relationship with your mentor.

Mentoring Resources