Starting off in STEM can be overwhelming at first. One of the best things we can do as new professionals is seek out advice from experts. Maybe they’ve been in the field for twenty years – maybe they were in your shoes just a year before. Either way, it can be intimidating to approach them and start that conversation.
It may be encouraging to hear, then, that I’ve found scientists to be eager mentors and supporters. The managers, team members, and colleagues I’ve had in the biotech industry and grad school have often been quick to listen, enthusiastic about my success, and ready to help. Mentorship can be casual – it might look like meeting a coworker for coffee, or chatting with a professor during office hours. Scientists – especially professors, I might add – love talking about science. Especially their science. If you’re looking to make a good first impression, asking about their research is a great place to start.
From there, what comes next? Here are four tips for a successful mentoring session with scientists, research associates, grad students, postdocs, professors, and professionals you admire.
Begin with an introduction.
Your mentor will want to help you by keeping the conversation relevant to your needs and interests. Many of them will start off by asking who you are, where you’re headed, or why you reached out. You don’t need to have a five-year plan ready; a simple “I’m thinking about this major” will do. Just be prepared to give them some context.
Ask about their background.
Unless this is someone you’ve been working with for years, it’s often great to start by hearing their story. While coming prepared often includes reading an abstract or two from their latest published papers (or papers that you’re most interested in), it’ll be helpful for you to hear from them in person. Ask about their current role, research interests, and professional journey. This will also fuel more in-depth questions.
Prepare questions ahead of time.
That said, don’t just take for granted you’ll be inspired by their stories and automatically come up with questions on the fly. You don’t want to be caught without anything to say, and end up wasting their time (and yours). Maybe you’re looking for advice on a career decision, or whether to apply to grad school. Maybe you’re looking for rotation projects and need a more technical session. Ask for tips for identifying positive work environments, or what kind of skills impress professors in their new students. Have a list of generic questions to keep the ball rolling and make the most of your time.
Set an agenda.
This can be held to loosely, but it can be helpful to pick a topic – and to notify your mentor of it – prior to the meeting. When you set up a meeting with someone out of the blue, introduce it as an opportunity to chat about X. A general outline of topics you’re interested in can be helpful as they prepare to empower you in your career, education, or personal growth.
Maybe this ‘mentor’ actually plays other roles in your life as a PI, manager, or college coach. In that case, it’s good practice to take notes during the meeting and email a bulleted summary (including action points) so that everyone is on the same page. This is also great for tracking growth as you learn from them over time.
Unless this is a professional relationship, seeking out mentorship doesn’t have to be particularly formal. It can be as simple as meeting someone for coffee, or nowadays, setting up a thirty minute Zoom chat. And if this particular person can’t meet with you, don’t take it personally! Everybody goes through times when they’re especially busy.
Another great reason to seek out mentorship is to get a diverse understanding of personal and professional development. You can talk to recent grads, or seasoned experts; scientists in academia, or scientists in industry; experts with a single subject they know deeply, or transdisciplinary polymaths. Some individuals were early achievers and new what they were going to do since high school; others have taken winding career paths.
Whatever you do, there’s no need to begin with an awkward, “Hello, will you be my mentor?” Just find someone who inspires you and reach out. We can learn things from people we’d never get from a textbook.