As a research neophyte with essentially nothing to show off so far, I mostly hope to be judged by the company I keep. The difference between being the hungry caterpillar that makes it to the next juicy research morsel and the one whose last study is of the internal anatomy of a bird’s beak may well be influenced by those who help guide me there. The relationship with a suitable mentor isn’t always easy to establish, and isn’t always met by a supervisor (and despite my fondness for Jerry Seinfeld as research mentor, he’s not always available to chat). Unsurprisingly, as with so many fields, there are some nut jobs in research (so I’m told if you’re reading this esteemed and noble supervisor). Having been lucky myself, I’d rate the following features highly, although I’d be happy to hear other tips or murmurs of dissent…
1. Go with Youth
Actually don’t. Well, not so much as measured by age but experience. Youthful vigour is one thing, but having a mentor who is also stumbling through the new rules of the wild woods is ultimately frustrating. I’ve been there, and wouldn’t recommend it. You’ll get mauled by a rabid racoon in those very woods.
2. No Alarms and No Surprises
I’m not making Radiohead references here but there’s a look I don’t want a mentor to have when I disclose my latest moment of research idiocy …
The last thing I’m wanting in a mentor is someone who greets every event as a harbinger of doom or herald of dizzying success. I’m quite interested in them reflecting research reality, which is generally somewhere between the outer extremes of disaster and stupendousness.
3. But Grumpiness Isn’t It Either
Mentors are allowed to get excited when warranted and be appropriately encouraging (yes, I am the research equivalent of an awful archetype in a trashy magazine, I’d like it all thanks). One of the most important moments in my fledgling research career was when I first approached my boss with an idea that involved flying in helicopters to patients and monitoring their brains to see what we’d find. He could have opened with “oh that’ll be impossible”. He went with “gee that sounds interesting, how would we do that?” As a result, we’re the length of a grasshopper’s rear leg hair from recruiting, rather than pondering when to cut those toenails.
Almost the most important one is that I want a mentor who looks at any conundrum I present more like this …
A valuable mentor will hopefully look at the same problem from a perspective that I wouldn’t. This extends to being prepared to point out when I’m displaying the intelligent decision-making of a naked mole rat purchasing a tanning bed. A mentor who lacks the ability to ever consider setting you straight is just a booster and will fail their role when it’s most needed.
6. The Wise Bit
Ultimately all of the above plus an element of wisdom is would be ideal. This is doubly hard to pick if you’re interacting with people you’ve never met before. However, the wisdom that comes from prior research experience can bear lots of fruit for the next person around. Of my two main mentors, there is one who has been at it not quite so long, but does a stellar job of keeping me going or subtly redirecting me. This is usually done without expending four syllables when two will do (we do not have that trait in common). A most excellent skill set for a PhD supervisor.
My other main mentor, who is also one of my bosses, has done the example by action thing rather impressively. He was instrumental in setting up a randomised controlled trial of prehospital care systems in the setting of traumatic brain injury (called the Head Injury Retrieval Trial or HIRT). Apart from the appeal of the topic, the effort required to set it up and do it is a bit astonishing.
The idea first hit in 1999. It took 6 years to plan and develop to the point of recruiting a patient. This process involved negotiation with multiple hospitals, the NHMRC Clinical Trials Centre, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, ambulance and fire services and air traffic control, to mention a few. The recruitment took another 6 years and faced numerous external threats and distortions beyond the control of the research team. The first core paper took 2 years to put together. Now it is finally out there, describing the rather dry details of the trial methodology. The results paper is still to come.
Not only does he have numerous reference points to draw on in giving advice, he has insight into the specific challenges in my field. It also puts my 3 years of work setting things up in some perspective (and perspective in a PhD student is something that could just be as rare as orthodontic work on a chook).
As to how to find the wise mentor, well you could try and find someone who looks as serious as this …
Alternatively, you could try to identify them from those you know already, so that you’re judging the qualities you need on more than a few minutes notice. It’s not a speed dating event.
A good mentor is an essential part of the mix for the junior researcher, particularly for the moments where the light at the end of the tunnel feels like a train about to hit you. Or even a train rapidly reversing. It’s one more time in life that it’s not just what you know but who you know that counts in your favour.