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Develop a network of mentors

Advice on how to expand your mentor support system.

Why developing a network of mentors is important

We all need mentoring in many areas:

  • Scientific - about research, projects, ideas, results, next steps, etc.
  • Professional – about career exploration, school or job applications, choosing positions, etc.
  • Psychosocial - about dealing with challenges, juggling our work and personal lives, navigating life transitions, who we are and how that influences our work and life, our confidence, etc.

Meeting these needs can be challenging and the model of PI as sole mentor is outdated, because:

  • no one person can meeting all your mentoring needs
  • there can be conflicts of interest when your supervisor, who is responsible for making sure the work of the research group advances, is also challenged to consider what is best for you as an individual.

A better model for support is that you develop a network of mentors. You need to find, connect with and maintain relationships with multiple mentors.

Practice makes the process easier

We know it can be hard to reach out to new people. Networking and building mentor relationships is a skill that gets easier over time, especially with practice. Know that many people you contact will be happy to talk about themselves and their career. Most of the people you reach out to have benefitted from mentoring in the past and are eager to pay it forward. Your IC training office and the NIH OITE organizes many networking opportunities for you and OITE career counselors are happy to work with you to develop your networking skills.

Find multiple mentors

Potential mentors are all around you; you can meet them in your Branch and IC, at seminars, scientific interest groups, OITE trainings, NIH events, and through colleagues. Use resources available to you to find additional mentors – ask ‘connectors’ like OITE staff or training directors to recommend potential mentors, use LinkedIn, or take advantage of open doors and office hours. It can help to use a referral from someone you already know, but spontaneous interactions and ‘cold’ emails work too.

As you search for mentors, ask yourself:

  • What am I looking for guidance about?
  • What do I expect from a mentor?
  • What can a mentor expect from me?

Shared life experience/identities can be helpful, but are not required for a successful mentoring relationship.

Connect with potential mentors

When you’ve found a potential mentor you want to connect with, set up a time to talk with them. We recommend you:

  • Email them to request a meeting; appreciate that they may be busy and be flexible about meeting times. While it can be helpful to offer times you are available, appreciate that they may not be available any of the times you suggest, so be flexible to other times.
  • Prepare for the meeting by doing some research on their background and interests and generating a list of questions based on what you want to learn from them. Be prepared to summarize your background and to concisely describe what you are looking for from them.
  • During the meeting, keep track of time. Be prepare to be flexible, but be sure to respect their schedule.
  • Follow up after the meeting with a thank you.

Check out our YouTube video on networking for more details on how to find and connect with multiple mentors.

As you consider your first few interactions with possible mentors, these questions can help you think about whether the person can meet your needs as a mentor:

  • Do I connect with this person?
  • Do I get the right balance of positive input and hard questions?
  • Do they make time for me?

Repeat this process until you have a cadre of mentors and feel that you are receiving support in the areas where you need mentoring.

Maintain mentoring relationships

Relationships require effort. In order to get the most out of your mentor, make sure that you are holding up your end of the bargain. Always be professional and courteous. Take the initiative to schedule meetings, arrive on time, and be prepared for discussion with relevant data or articles in hand. Finally, recognize that sometimes even the best research mentors will meet only a subset of your needs. As you advance in your training, you may want to seek out additional mentors to fill the gaps. Alternate mentors may include other scientists in your research group, additional researchers in your field, or people in your network who have careers that interest you.

Some mentoring relationships last a long time, but short-term mentoring is also an effective way to get support. We all need mentors throughout our careers, not just during training. By building and maintaining your mentor network, you are using a skills that will benefit you for your entire career.

Remember, ask yourself what you need. Then work to find mentors and advocates to support you. This is important for your success at NIH and beyond. If you develop communication, interpersonal, well-being and resilience skill, you will develop your mentoring skills. We hope you will pay it forward and mentor others. We are here to support you and hope you reach out.