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As the title quite clearly states: I am now the advisor to a PhD student. Which makes me want to rub my hands together like Burns, and go “mwah ha ha ha”, evilly.

Seriously though, I am very excited, and pleased to be working with a junior Scientist. I was a teacher before academia, and that was out of love not necessity. Of course, I feel the enormous responsibility that comes with this. I chose a fairly ‘risky’ faculty job, in the sense that I knew I would be establishing a research program on my own, not joining a team (although many would point out, that if you are at an R1 institution, this is the point of being tenure-track (being on your own), not non tenure-track (being part of a constructed and supportive team until you build a research program with truly independent goals), and I might agree), but I decided to take the risk: to follow my passion and face failure. Of course in that situation, failure was personal failure. Here, with my student, I cannot bear the thought of failing her. So, I have been thinking long and hard about what I need to do to be an effective mentor.

In addition, I feel like where I am today, is entirely due to the mentorship I had throughout my Science career to date. Whether I am successful or not remains to be seen; but my mentors grew both my Science, and myself as a Scientist. All of my mentors went ‘above and beyond’ to give part of themselves to me, and seemingly with my development as the primary ‘payback’ (I have no horror stories of being abused, my work being ‘stolen’, not getting credit, or ever being held back) . So, not only am I somewhat indebted to Science to do the same (pay-it-forward style), but thinking over why my mentors were so wonderful seems a good place to start in thinking how to be a good mentor myself.

****Quick corollary: I do wish to paint some immensely rosy picture of my Science path to date. This would be unfair to other who are struggling, and need to know about pushing through the hard times. Although I would consider myself utterly blessed to have had the following three mentors, that is not to say I have not fallen out, had frustrated relationships, and cried because of each and every one of them. I suspect it is partly me and my strong personality, and partly because mentorship can be like a parent-child relationship: as the child (here a Scientist) grows up through adolescence (here training) and establishes themselves as an independent entity (I want to pursue my own research in my own way), with independent ideals (I don’t want to do things your way), there will be growing pains, and mistakes on both sides (mostly on that of the child, tiz true), and the break will ultimately be difficult. But it is a great process to go through, and I am grateful my mentors knew that a few temper tantrums were probably par for the course, and let me leap into independence, without any grudges****

Leaping into independence?

My (main) mentors:

Jonna Kunsti

Jonna in the middle, surrounded by her first major research team

Jonna in the middle, surrounded by her first major research team

Jonna took me on her my PhD. I now count Jonna as a good friend, and amazingly, even though I have taken quite a different path from my PhD, Jonna and I still work together some 3 and a bit years later – I love it! Jonna gave me a lot of wonderful mentorship (in fact I nominated her for a mentorship award, which she won!), but what stands out to me now is:

-Jonna’s commitment to being a teacher. A PhD in England does not require – or have any formal classes. One learns ‘on the job’, as it were. A PhD supervisor’s job is to get you researching and get your thesis written. I am lucky that Jonna went beyond that and decided to teach me to be to be a well-rounded Scientist; a good example was that she went out of her way to teach me to write Scientific reviews. Note: Jonna did not get me to write her reviews for her. Rather, every 3 months, she would (with an editor’s permission) give me a paper she had already reviewed, and get me to review it. She would then share her review, and we would discuss the differences. Even now, I get compliments from the (very rare) editors who really care about their journals, for my review skills. While that is nice (and has opened doors for me): it is just one aspect of how seriously Jonna took the training aspect of being a mentor.

-Jonna was never afraid, and in fact encouraged, me to explore my own ideas. When I wanted to write a paper on the use of actigraph data, which she was not sure was necessary, she still gave me the go ahead. When I wanted to examine whether IQ was not the mediator of the association between ADHD and cognitive performance (a theory Jonna has published data supporting), again she said it was fine and again, I got a paper. But, importantly, I did not pursue these interests outside of my work “with” Jonna: as long as I working hard on Science, Jonna gave me the time. I was lucky.

-Jonna also got me very involved in projects: she would respect my skills and if there was a project I could apply them to, get me involved. This is a great thing for a highly dependent junior Scientist. It allowed me to broaden my research interests, and to gain some confidence. It got me a leg up into my postdoc.
I very much doubt that that is all which Jonna gave to me. But, it stands out: training, space to be creative and confidence and breadth to my research.
It was a great start to my Science career, and I moved onto:

David Allison

I am sure this is *just* how David would like to be remembered: it was a departmental trip after all.

David was the one who whisked me away from Jonna. No, literally. I had a position all lined up at Yale (I think it later went to someone else in my Center a year below, so All’s Well That End’s Well), and in the space of a 20 minute conversation persuaded me to move to Alabama (Alabama! “You have a baby! …In a bar…“). In 3 month’s time. Causing my boyfriend (who I was moving for!) to temporarily break up with me (it’s OK, I broke up with him, finally, 6 weeks’ after the reconciliation. And… lucky that I did 🙂 ).

Aaaanyway, due to the vagaries of me being a UK-citizen and NIH funding, I did not work that closely with David, and much that he taught me was more personal development. However, to ALL his mentor-ees, David gave the following:

-Time. David would spend time with any junior Scientist to help them build their career. Combined with the expertize of how to build a career, this was a great gift.

-Great ethics. Nothing compromised doing what was honest in Science.

-A realistic “tough-love” view of Science. David respected those who pushed their own boundaries: in creativity, in commitment, and in productivity. He wanted to see you give your all. It could be tough, and demanding (at crunch time, weekend plans were always postponable & sleep was always ultimately unnecessary) and wore some people out. But it was realistic, and taught me what is actually necessary to keep climbing, and not stagnate. There were no excuses in David’s eyes for failing to try (he was actually pretty OK with failure): if a problem has a possible solution, he wanted you to be fighting for that solution. This was combined with:

-A belief that everyone could reach for the stars, and get them. David imbued in me the ultimate belief (although it wavers) that shooting for the highest goal was worth it, and achievable. To shed the expectations of what could be done: and just go for what I wanted. Memorably, this was exemplified in him getting me to write a whole K99 (designed for old postdocs ready for faculty), when I had been a postdoc just 8 months, in a new field, with no publications. And you know what? I got it. (And lost it…) but that is another story.

It is also worth me remembering that I wasn’t always an ideal student… this was the day Ryan and I bust into David’s calm and work-centered office (complete with classical music) to demand he dropped everything and played with Donna’s new Puppy. “EVERYONE loves puppies” I yelled as we ran in. Here he is providing a physical barrier to us entering further. Perhaps I have learned a touch more professionalism since then 🙂

So, I left David with a belief that, with a little luck (but the harder you work, the luckier you are), I could achieve things beyond everyone else’s expectations. His confidence in me, gave me confidence in myself. I hope to pass this onto my students.

As I said, I didn’t get to work much with David, he just generously gave out free time and advice, my academic postdoc mentor was:

Donna Arnett.

Donna. Always giving. Seriously.

-Donna was a perfect counter balance to David. While, yes, one could reach for the stars, Donna was always a reminder that there is – in academia – an established system in place, and you are not above the system. You have to achieve the basics, as well as try for the out there stuff. Donna has real humility: she is above no one in her mind, and works with people and with systems. Donna is the reason why, while pursing grants and crazy ideas at UT, and investing a lot of taking risks (which may not have a pay back) I have also lined up some sensible papers, accrued some academic service, and made contingency plans. If David made me shoot for the stars, Donna gave me the ground to stand on and do it.

-Donna’s humility is.. well humbling and a beautiful thing, but the first thing that I remember from Donna is that she went out of her way to teach me true independence. I fought it – I really did, and complained bitterly that I was “unsupported”. Donna was supportive throughout this, but maintained a firm line: that she wanted me to develop my own independence, not just work under her: working under her, as in being directed every step of the way, would not be good for my ultimate development. And she was right: I made mistakes, I learned from them, I learned rejection and failure wouldn’t kill me, I learned to “pull myself up by my bootstraps” (actually that was advice for David one day when I went in complaining bitterly).

-Of course, the upshot of this was that Donna did not get much out of me for herself: sure, I worked on her data, but my ideas were my own, I developed my own collaborations and papers were probably slower as I worked things out myself. Donna took that sacrifice, because one thing I learned about Donna is that she truly cares about all people: she wants people to find the path that makes them happy: whether this achieves her goals or not. Donna is a carer, and a nurturer, and I always see her like a parent holding their child’s bicycle the first time the training wheels are taken off: kids wobble, but at the end they cycle freely on their own and have that truly triumphant achievement written all over their face: at that point it is all about the child’s achievement, and not the parent’s…

So from Donna, I would like to help my students work within the system, and do well conventionally, while nurturing them and supporting them to a new path, but always remembering, that this endeavor must be selfless. You are there to set your students free to fly, not to have them support you as they go.

So.. quite a lot to live up to. I am so lucky to have had such wonderful support, and so lucky to call all of my mentors true friends (all THREE came to one of my weddings). I hope I can be even a fraction of this to my students. But one thing occurs to me: these are the things that worked for, and helped, *me*. Each student will be a unique individual with their own needs. I am interested in what other things have helped others:

Can anyone help me with: what mentorship skills have you benefited from, that I might use to help others?