Research careers – why mentorship matters – Cancer Research UK

A similar observation arose from a panel at a recent CRUK careers event for postdocs, where speakers from diverse cancer research-related careers waxed lyrical about the boost mentors have given them at various stages of their professional (and sometimes personal) journeys. In the Q&A session after this panel, an attendee raised her hand and asked: “But, how do you go about finding a mentor?”

A very pertinent question, I thought.

I was in academia as a PhD student, postdoc, and project manager for a total of 17 years. I never had a mentor. Sure, I was fortunate to have PhD and postdoc supervisors who were supportive, encouraging, and inspiring, but I have since come to understand that a manager is not a mentor.

Think mentor, not manager

A mentor is someone who uses their own experience to support the personal development of a mentee and can adopt a wide variety of roles, from acting as a sounding board and role-model to being a critical friend. They are perfectly placed to recognise your personal strengths and help you use them to become successful – whatever that means for you.

A mentoring relationship should be a space for reflection and exploration where the mentee determines the focus of conversations based on their goals. Importantly, a mentor should be someone who provides an unbiased external view. This is why your manager, while responsible for having personal development conversations with you as part of their role as your supervisor, should not be your mentor. A mentor can be someone who works in your field, but cross-sector mentoring also has many benefits. Bringing an outside perspective to your career can really help develop broader skillsets.

CRUK’s Women of Influence mentorship programme is a case-in-point here. The scheme pairs academic researchers with leading businesswomen working across a diverse range of sectors as mentors. I have seen firsthand how an outside perspective provided by mentors in this programme helps researchers to enhance their self-confidence, leadership, and decision-making skills.

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