Mitchell Blog

The Importance of Multiple Mentors (Part 1)


I recently came across an article I wrote six years ago to postdoctoral trainees regarding the importance of multiple mentors. I thought I would share this since we can never have too many mentors regardless of our age or expertise. I believe my thoughts could be applied to other fields where the mentor/mentee relationship exists. Enjoy Part 1!

When scientists think of mentoring, they often think of an one-on-one relationship between a more experienced investigator and a trainee. The ancient Chinese proverb “Mentor: Someone whose hindsight can become your foresight,” clearly explains the concept of the mentor-mentee relationship. As graduate students, we had the opportunity to develop relationships with our graduate dissertation advisors, program directors, and/or committee members. These individuals gave us sound advice professionally and in some cases personally. Whether or not your graduate school experience was what you expected, we can all agree that our mentors gave us lasting impressions (hopefully in a positive light). As postdocs, we have transitioned to a new phase of our careers where we are developing into becoming the next generation of well-rounded scientists. However, the constant need to focus on our projects and to get publications and funding, often overshadow another important area of our careers, which is the need for positive relationships with multiple mentors. Yes, you read that correctly, and you’re probably thinking that one mentor is more than enough at this point! But, no matter how true this may seem to you, having only one mentor is not conducive to your personal growth as a scientist. If your current mentor gives you valuable advice that can be applied to your career now and in the future, then you are off to a great start! However, solely relying on your mentor to give you complete advice to fulfill your individual goals is not being realistic or fair to your mentor. Although one person can make significant efforts to help you professionally, they may not be able to assist you completely due to their limited individual experiences. Instead, you should have a personal board of people who are rooting for Dr. ______ (add your name to the blank!) and who can advise you throughout your career. These individuals are invaluable and can be the people you go to when you need career advice or just someone to listen to you.

It is widely accepted by the scientific community that achieving success in an academic career is enhanced by good mentoring. So why not increase your chances of success by having additional mentors? This can be an informal or formal relationship. If you are still not convinced, let’s think about it another way. We all have a circle of friends that we can talk to about a variety of topics. However, there is always that one friend that you feel more comfortable discussing sensitive topics with than with your other friends. So in parallel to this example, you can have additional mentors to get their thoughts on different aspects of your career or personal life. I am not suggesting that you ignore your current mentor’s thoughts or way of doing things, but I am rather encouraging you to get several perspectives. It is possible that by establishing and cultivating these relationships you may learn something new about yourself such as hidden talents or aspirations that you never knew existed but were there all along. According to Bob Proctor, a life coach, “A mentor is someone who sees more talent and ability within you, than you see in yourself, and helps bring it out of you.” Here are a few benefits of having multiple mentors:

Collaborations/Network. You will have more opportunities to interact and make contacts with individuals that could lead to positive relationships, collaborations, and/or jobs. For example, if you want to learn a new technique at your institution or another place, one of your mentors could connect you to someone to help you move that particular research project forward.

Multitude of viewpoints. If you’re not sure how to handle a situation (e.g. starting a family) or if you’re trying to determine whether or not your grant proposal is strong enough to get funding, you could talk to one of your mentors to get their thoughts since each mentor has a different way of addressing issues.

Growth as a scientist and as an individual. Having a great mentor is extremely beneficial but ultimately we are responsible for how successful we will be as scientists and in life. Thus, mentors are there to help us to succeed professionally. So do not be afraid to branch out and establish positive relationships. In most cases, senior investigators are honored when you ask to connect with them to get their opinions on science and life.

So I encourage you to seek out mentors at your local institution, at other institutions, and within your professional societies rather than waiting for them to come to you! Also, keep your expectations as simple as possible and remain positive. Most importantly, make sure that whatever information you learn is shared with others. Eventually, you will find yourself becoming a mentor to the trainees that follow you.