Mentors are Made, not Born

Photo: Courtesy of R. Julian Preston R. Julian Preston Principal investigators should ideally help equip postdoctoral fellows for careers, but this advisory role often receives few resources and little attention. Nevertheless, the changing nature and stringency of today's job market has made the mentor's task more difficult. One tool that may help is an Individual Development Plan (IDP), such as the one recently developed by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (

Sep 2, 2002
Julian Preston
Photo: Courtesy of R. Julian Preston
 R. Julian Preston

Principal investigators should ideally help equip postdoctoral fellows for careers, but this advisory role often receives few resources and little attention. Nevertheless, the changing nature and stringency of today's job market has made the mentor's task more difficult.

One tool that may help is an Individual Development Plan (IDP), such as the one recently developed by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) (www.faseb.org/opar/ppp/educ/idp.html). IDPs help mentors and their protégés identify both professional development needs and career objectives. The concept of IDPs is not new, but there is growing realization that they should be incorporated into training practices for postdocs.

Each of the three component words in the IDP provides a measure of the value of the plan: Individual emphasizes the need to consider the unique training and career goals of each fellow. Development stresses the identification of steps needed to achieve the goals. Plan stresses the specific steps needed to reach career goals rather than relying on the more traditional random walk.

The development of an IDP combines the efforts of the postdoc and the mentor; both play critical roles, and a lack of activity by either person can easily derail the process. For the postdoc, selection of a mentor is an important first step. Look for institutions that clearly define mentors' responsibilities, possibly in a formal "Rights and Responsibilities" document; this may help ensure good mentoring practices. The postdoctorate interview should include an initial discussion of career plans. The prospective postdoc may want to ask questions, such as: "Do you feel that mentoring of your previous postdoctoral fellows helped them to reach their initial career objectives? How do you view the balance between work-related activities and nonwork-related activities?"

While no short list of attributes for a mentor can guarantee success, a few essential characteristics are worth considering. A mentor must be able to provide time to meet regularly with the postdoctoral fellow. A mentor needs to be a true critic who provides honest feedback, both positive and negative. A mentor should appreciate that the ability to provide helpful advice is learned and not inherent. Other postdocs can often identify the best mentors: listen to your peers!

Difficult situations arise and can spiral out of control when the fellow and mentor do not adequately communicate. Worse, career development goals can be overlooked or given less attention than that given to research objectives. Expectations of trainee and advisor should be clearly outlined during the initial development of an IDP. Frank and open discussion of progress occurs as the document is updated.

FASEB recommends all institutions involved in the training and career development of postdocs maintain a well-defined mentor program. An IDP can be essential to career advising. It can enhance the experience of fellows and improve the lifelong bond between a fellow and a principal investigator who is genuinely concerned with the career development of trainees.

R. Julian Preston, (preston.julian@epa.gov) is director of the Environmental Carcinogenesis Division of the US Environmental Protection Agency in Research Triangle Park, NC.