Putting my mentoring where my mouth is

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?

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Putting my mentoring where my mouth is

  1. So I keep thinking about this one and I’ve been keeping it unread in my feeder while I mull over it.

    Because I’m in a part-time master’s program that’s not sciencey (MPH) and I really like it…but I also work at a full-fledged university and wish I could be one of those full-time PhD students. My part-time MPH program is fantastic and is a good fit for me right now…but it’s not the same AT ALL as a doctoral student program.

    I like doing a part-time MPH program because it is giving me a wider exposure to ideas and fields than I get through working alone (though I get to read a ton of research proposals/grants, so I DO get to see a lot at work). And it is a way to build up confidence since I wasn’t sure I could handle a PhD program. (Now I know I can.) It’s also a way to make a change without totally rewriting my life…and if I want to rewrite my life later, this program only takes 3 years and at the end, if I want the PhD, I’ll know for sure that I’m committed and ready to take on that challenge.

    If she’s not committed to the PhD program, I think she’s not ready for it. I’d make sure she knows that you think she’s capable and that there are a lot of advantages. Then let her know you’re there for her if she choose that option now or later.

    And it does suck to lose someone who finally knows how things work at work…I’d hate to have to train someone new. I’m not sure how much I’d want that to affect my advice, but it certainly would.

    • Thanks for the perspective Beth.

      I think the timing of this post/her decision was kind of ironic since a friend posted a link to this article just this morning:
      http://www.economist.com/node/17723223

      Choice quote: “A PhD may offer no financial benefit over a master’s degree. It can even reduce earnings.”

      So perhaps you (and she) are on the right track with the Master’s.

      I definitely don’t think she’s making a mistake, per se, but maybe just not pushing the limits of her abilities. However, 5+ years of schooling just because you’re capable doesn’t make it the right choice. Like you said- I think the Master’s program will kind of force her to expand her science knowledge much more than if she were just reading papers on her own. Because, really, who doesn’t have an enormous stack of papers they’ve been meaning to read?

  2. This is very thought provoking. My initial response is actually in line with the article you posted in response to Bethlin. As it stands right now, there are so many PhDs (newly minted and ones in training) compared to available jobs – in academia and industry. And, it is a time commitment to say the least (10 years, you said it yourself!). Given this, I’d probably push her to get the masters. However, if I was in her shoes, there is no way I’d listen to that advice – I’d go and get my PhD!

  3. I’ve wanted to do a PhD for years but don’t have the means – I guess I would mainly want it for the interesting research… but the flip side of that is that I can still think of many things to do and read things related to it without going for a PhD (can’t afford being a full time student. :)) With that being said, I will have my master’s in the next year or so; that’s still something.

    • Well the article I posted in response to Beth above would say that the Master’s is a smart choice- it’s the PhD that doesn’t really pay off in terms of salary. And congrats on the impending Master’s!

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