I’ve been blessed with several effective mentors in my life- most of them women. Now that I’ve got a ‘real job’ in my chosen field, it’s my turn to mentor. Well, actually, I’ve been mentoring in some form or another since college helping high school students, summer interns, rotation students, etc. in the lab. However, now that I’ve got this ‘real job’ I’ve also got a bona fide direct report. I’m somebody’s boss!
Knowing how crucial a mentor is, and how horrible it can be when your advisor/boss is a bad one, I’ve invested time and effort in developing my managerial and mentorship skills. Thankfully my company offers lots of training for new managers (and all managers) and encourages employees to invest in their own career development and the skills to help their direct reports develop their careers. Aside from that formal training, I’ve had decades of experience with mentors ranging from awesome to tiresome to awesomely bad. I know what approaches worked well for me (approachability, practical support, fair and thoughtful feeback, etc.) and what didn’t work at all (neglect, yelling, impatience, lip-service, etc.).
So, in an effort to be the kind of mentor I would like to have, back in the early Spring, I sat down with my direct report to ask her about her future plans. She’s currently a talented technician, has an impressive resume (prestigious scholarships, etc), a budding scientist, and a like-able person in general. I wanted to know, did she have a 5 year plan? What did it include? What was she hoping to learn in her current position? What were things she wanted my help to work on?
Her answers kind of disappointed me, in a sort of conflicted way. She wanted to stay on here at the company for the long-term (yay for me not losing a talented technician!) and she wanted to pursue a part-time Master’s Degree to take advantage of the company’s tuition re-imbursement policy (yay for her getting more training! boo for her, kind of, wasting her talents pursuing a non-scientist career track). She’s also thinking that down the road she might take advantage of the company’s alternative track to a scientist position (kind of like an in-house doctoral program complete with executives on the ‘thesis committee’ and a public, company-wide defense).
So, I had a dilemma. I think she has the potential to be a really great scientist. I think she would flourish and excel in a doctoral program. I think she could have my job in 10 years (Good God- writing it out, it’s a flipping decade! 6+ years grad school, 3+ years post-doc=my job). However, her pursuing a doctorate would mean her leaving the company- since there are no part-time doctoral programs in bio-related fields (I’m guessing because that would take FOREVER!) and me losing her skills in the lab and starting over from scratch training a new person. All of that aside, it’s not what she wants. She likes it here, she wants to keep her job, she wants to advance on her current track, she wants to keep her life how it is in a general sense.
I told her the pros of a doctoral program (rigorous training, earning potential, no tuition!) but agreed to support whatever choice she made.
Last week she came to me and said she was applying to a part-time Master’s program that would earn her a degree in a couple of years. We spoke about subject areas, who to approach for recommendations, etc. My only real concern about the Master’s program is the rigorousness. The missing pieces to her scientific career (in my humble opinion- which is the only one that matters since I do her performance review!) are time, experience, and depth/breadth of scientific knowledge. The time and experience she’s working on. We’re also working on the scientific knowledge part- having little one-on-one journal clubs and such. My real question- Will the course work of a part-time Master’s program really get her the depth and breadth of knowledge that a grad student acquires in a doctoral program? I have my doubts.
I’m glad I can support her in her career goals and nurture a young (female) scientist. I don’t want to be like a terrible mentor I once had that chastised, berated, and harangued advisees that didn’t do exactly as they were advised. However, if the stakes were different, if she wasn’t my technician, would I push her harder to pursue the PhD? Would pushing her be wrong? Is wrong not to push her?