A Mentor – Next Year’s Must Have!

Written by Prof Cathy Shanahan, Department of Cardiology

To be or not to be Mentored 

It is now well established that good mentors are key to the success of any career.  Mentoring of research staff is particularly important as this is the time that critical career and life  choices have to be made and it is also the time of the greatest drop out of women from Academia.

Below, I have set out a whistle stop tour of how to get the most out of mentoring  – not only to leverage your career but more importantly to make informed decisions to ensure life satisfaction!

So, What is Mentoring?

It’s a process whereby an experienced, empathic individual guides you (the mentee) in the development and examination of your own ideas, learning and personal and professional development.  It is completely confidential so it is important that you are open and honest during the process.   

It is not Therapy, Lecturing/Teaching or a cosy chat –  it has a purpose and you, the mentee, need to be the one driving the process!

When is Mentoring Useful?

Mentoring is probably most useful when you are about to enter into a period of change.  This could be anything from an academic decision, such as applying for an Independent Fellowship or moving on from a post-doc to a new career in industry or anything else. Mentoring can also be used to guide you through more personal decisions such as taking a career break or dealing with difficult conversations with the boss!   It can help you gain confidence in establishing relationships and working with more senior staff and will help you gain a broader perspective.  It is best to find a mentor at least a year before important decisions need to be finalized – so there is time to consider and put plans into action.

Choosing a Mentor – Horses for Courses!

Some people are lucky enough to have a great boss who has their best interests at heart and will spend the time to help develop their career.  But not every boss is so altruistic – if you are good your boss might just want to keep you to boost their own productivity (and ego!). But even if you have a great boss a broader perspective is always useful.

You can get a mentor in two ways; either informally, by asking someone you think might be good, or as part of a formal scheme – and there are many of these across King’s.  Of course, asking someone is not for the faint hearted – but you would be surprised at how many people are willing to say yes!  Just as there are horses for courses not all Mentors are alike – so you need to choose a mentor or a scheme that suits your purpose.

The Mentee Does most of the work!  The more you put in the more you get out!

Perhaps the most important rule is that mentoring is not a passive process – it requires a lot of work on the part of the Mentee.  The Mentor is just a conduit to enable the mentee to make their own choices.  If you join a formal scheme you will almost certainly receive training on how to get the most out of the process – but if you find your own mentor then here are the key things you need to know:

  • You need to be the proactive one arranging meetings with your mentor.  But remember they have agreed to the relationship so don’t feel bad that you are taking their time – you are in it together!
  • The first meeting should be about getting to know one another. Send your CV so that can form the basis for some of the first discussions and make sure your mentor understands what you would like to achieve.
  • Once you have started the process your mentor might give you ‘homework’ to help you make the right choice. Sometimes this might seem daunting and take you out of your comfort zone – but ultimately that is the only way to orchestrate change – and let’s face it life would be boring if you didn’t get the occasional adrenaline rush!

Finally, if you find you can’t establish a rapport with your mentor – or they spend the whole time talking about themselves, then change – it’s your prerogative and it’s meant to help you.  And don’t be shy in asking for help – we all need it!

The Benefits of Collaboration

Written by Donald Lush, Careers Consultant 

Let’s tip this one on its head! Collaboration can too easily be seen as an obligation and a distraction, something that stops you working instead of making your research richer, more exciting and more rewarding.

So, start by thinking of yourself as valuable. Why? Because you are. As a research staff member you probably know more about your subject and research methods than anyone else.  Think about what it is you have to offer – be specific and try to create a short and simple statement to summarise it.  A book such as ‘What Colour Is Your Parachute?’ can really help here. Additionally, engaging in collaborations can be an excellent opportunity to enhance your career development and the scope of the impact of your research. Whether you are collaborating with academic colleagues or stakeholders in industry, collaboration can help you develop new knowledge and transferable skills and can promote your academic profile nationally and internationally. Academic collaborations can broaden the reach of your research to other disciplines and industry collaborations can lead to the application of your research in wider society, in turn strengthening its impact.

Successful collaboration is also a key ingredient in building strong teams. If you know what you’re about and can communicate it effectively you are much more likely to benefit from help from colleagues and much more likely to be able to help them. This facilitates teamwork in which everyone is able to play to their strengths and therefore makes the team more effective.

Fully collaborative teams achieve far more than one person can on their own. Collaboration across teams is also much more likely to lead to innovation, as fresh ideas from fresh perspectives are encouraged and developed.

Finally, a truly collaborative project is characterised by mutual respect, honesty and integrity. This means that team members are open to new ideas and tolerant of risk and even failure. Paradoxically, where risk and failure are permitted, the chances of it happening are reduced as honest and positive criticism strengthens the team’s thinking. The consequence is that new ideas blossom and energy is not wasted on blame or power struggles.

There is one potential downside – groupthink. This is where the group falls under the sway of one way of thinking and refuses all criticism. It can be very damaging to the team because it can’t absorb and act on information contrary to its established view. If you’re setting up a new collaboration make sure there is a structure that insists on giving dissent a voice and ensure that the devils advocates in the team are given space to share their thoughts but are not allowed to dominate.

For more on collaboration this is an excellent TED talk.