Having good mentoring is vital to move forward in a science career. Today’s careers are fraught with complexities that didn’t previously exist, and navigating through those can be daunting without good advice. However, if you seek out mentors who are too close to the “outcome of the experiment” (that would be you and your career), you are risking problems.

Some departments in some universities assign a mentor to their young faculty. But it is important to be careful what you reveal and don’t reveal to that mentor.

Because, often, that same mentor is going to be sitting on the committee that reviews your tenure/promotions.
Say you’re really struggling with your writing. Say you go to your departmental mentor about that, and they ask for some examples of your writing. Say your examples are not exactly stellar – in fact, your writing could use some real work.
And let’s say you improve your writing substantially in the subsequent years.

The question is, will your mentor be able to “forget” their first impressions of your rather poor writing capabilities?
Perhaps – if that’s the only struggle they see, and you clearly overcame it.

But what if you found a different solution – say, hiring a great science writer in your lab. This solves the problem of being able to produce great written papers and proposals – but it won’t overcome your mentor’s impression of you as a writer. They won’t see the improvement. How will that color their review of your tenure package (or other promotion) if they know that you are getting help on all your writing?

That’s just one example. Say you’re struggling with drinking a bit too much alcohol. Or struggling with family/work balance. Or etc.

You want to be able to ask questions about how to deal with those things. Because in an academic science career, there are many challenging issues to address. But if your mentor learns too much about you, it could harm your chances when it comes to decision time.

It depends on the mentor, of course. Some will see all that stuff and be un phased by it, only looking at who you’ve become, not who you were.

But others won’t forget. They’ll form an impression of you that could carry into the future decisions that affect your career.

When I was starting out, I read in a book on faculty careers that one should seek out a mentor outside of one’s department. I didn’t follow that advice, until about five years into my career. Finally, when I did, it was a breath of fresh air. I had someone that I could talk to openly about some of the challenges I was facing – without worrying about “will this impact my promotion?”

The bottom line is: 1) seek out mentoring, always – at whatever stage of your career you’re at. The more and better mentoring you get, the better and more effective person you’ll be, and 2) find mentoring that is outside of your immediate department or unit (better yet if outside of your university).

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