Mentorship: Open Letter to an Undergraduate

The value of mentorship is apparent across almost every field, scientific or otherwise. While neuroscientists have yet to approach the social complexities associated with the mentor-mentee relationship, the value of mentorship isn’t lost on them. From the Society for Neuroscience mentorship program to local university programs, professionals and students alike seem to understand the importance of strong mentorship.

Numerous academic papers have been written on the topic. Some of their main findings include the notion that strong partnerships should be formed at the earliest points in education, as early as kindergarten. Others point to the need for good mentor-mentee matching, focusing on value-based compatibility and the need for the mentee to be as proactive as the mentor. Interestingly, a 2007 survey of NIH-funded scientists found that the probability of ‘problematic research behaviour’ (e.g. questionable use of funds or peer review process, but not outright misconduct like fabrication or plagiarism) declined in researchers that received ethical, research-related, or personal mentorship, but increased in those who received mentorship on financial or ‘professional-survival’ issues. Unsurprisingly, these results underscore the need for more positive, and contextually appropriate, mentor-mentee relationships.

Recently, a University of Toronto colleague and friend from the undergrad days put a general call out to Alum (and to me in particular) asking if we “could provide some words of wisdom for a current student?” As a graduate of ’03, I struggled with what to offer that would be different from what others (particularly the older, wiser, Alum) might say. While there may be no overt revelations here, and no nirvana-inspiring tips, I do have a few personal observations for the scientist and non-scientist alike.

In no particular order:

  1. Finding out what it is you love in life (and subsequently, the kind of person you want to be) is hard work and on-going. (I’ve never met a person that this came naturally for – although some might challenge this, it is my experience that a few probing questions reveals otherwise.) The best way to go about this is to – almost literally – throw yourself into things, even though they may initially lead to discomfort. Crossing ‘dislikes’ off your list is every bit as important as finding out what you love to do, and ultimately brings you clarity to what qualities/things are most valuable to you personally. Studies done years ago found that undergrads with goals were more likely to be successful and satisfied years later – regardless of whether they ended up doing exactly what they said they’d be doing.
  2. Despite how bright you are (or think you might be), it’s always easier to psychologize someone else. Seeing your own strengths and faults is far more difficult. This, among many other good reasons, is why it is essential to find good mentors. I have been very lucky in this regard, but I have also been proactive. Like in #1, if you aren’t ‘throwing yourself’ into new situations and environments, you are far less likely to meet people with the potential to change the course of your life.
  3. Don’t be afraid to fail. I have to admit, I am afraid to fail – and allowing for the possibility of failure is a constant struggle. Nonetheless, it is my overwhelming experience that taking calculated, thoughtful, risks (that could possibly lead to failure and/or humiliation) leads to rewards far more often than not. In fact, with a nice balance of risk and potential for reward, even failures can ultimately lead to success (and are often prerequisites for the biggest accomplishments).
  4. Maintain your integrity. This, of course, isn’t a license for pushing your moral beliefs on others or taking a righteous stance. Instead, approaching all people and situations with a genuine intention of honesty, transparency, and empathy seems to me to be the most effective path to a continued healthy and happy life – for yourself as well as those around you. (I recommend reading Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape” for an interesting tie of morality and neuroscience.) Though we often hear of the most unscrupulous among us stealing the prize from those more deserving, it is my contention (conveniently supported by much research) that this is the much hyped exception rather than the rule.
  5. Finally, don’t sell yourself short. More importantly, sell yourself! There is no one more knowledgeable about your skills, goals, and desires than you. If you’re following the points above – which ultimately help us to maintain a realistic and accurate self-image – there is less chance that you’re over-selling yourself. If you don’t let people know what you are interested in and capable of, you cannot have a reasonable expectation of getting to where you want to go.
  6. Ok, one more – a 5b if you like. Doing all of these things will help you build a community of people that know you, trust you, can rely on you, and are ultimately as interested in your success and happiness as you are in theirs. Research from the brain sciences shows us repeatedly that helping to build, and be an active member of, a network of people is a key aspect of happiness.

So, good luck! And if you’re interested in going into/knowing more about science or neuroscience, feel free to reach out.

Anderson, M., Horn, A., Risbey, K., Ronning, E., De Vries, R., & Martinson, B. (2007). What Do Mentoring and Training in the Responsible Conduct of Research Have To Do with Scientists??? Misbehavior? Findings from a National Survey of NIH-Funded Scientists Academic Medicine, 82 (9), 853-860 DOI: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e31812f764c

Hamos JE (2006). Framing K-12 partnerships in order to make a difference. Academic medicine : journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges, 81 (6 Suppl) PMID: 16723826

Frei, E., Stamm, M., & Buddeberg-Fischer, B. (2010). Mentoring programs for medical students – a review of the PubMed literature 2000 – 2008 BMC Medical Education, 10 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1472-6920-10-32

Locke, E., & Latham, G. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57 (9), 705-717 DOI: 10.1037//0003-066X.57.9.705

Morisano, D., Hirsh, J., Peterson, J., Pihl, R., & Shore, B. (2010). Setting, elaborating, and reflecting on personal goals improves academic performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95 (2), 255-264 DOI: 10.1037/a0018478

Zerzan, J., Hess, R., Schur, E., Phillips, R., & Rigotti, N. (2009). Making the Most of Mentors: A Guide for Mentees Academic Medicine, 84 (1), 140-144 DOI: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e3181906e8f


About davejhayes
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3 Responses to Mentorship: Open Letter to an Undergraduate

  1. Pingback: Mentorship: Open Letter to an Undergraduate | neurosphere | Adult Society

  2. Dimitra says:

    thank you :)

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