As I began my MD/PhD at Emory University in 2014, I was like every young, enthusiastic medical or graduate student: excited to learn, participate in the scientific process, and ready to develop tools to address critical questions pertaining to human disease. Many of us by this point have an idea of what we want our lives to look like and have a sense of what needs to happen to get there. But what I have learned throughout my training is that often, these things may not, in actuality, be what is best for us. This is not to say that we are uneducated or unfounded in our beliefs; as we gain experience and grow, we are often pushed in new directions that we may not have previously considered. The most exhilarating, yet challenging, aspect of beginning the journey as a professional student is the ability to choose and mold your path forward, but what can set this journey apart is the guidance of those who have already successfully navigated the waters. While this article is an exploration into my personal experiences, I will reflect on the topic of mentorship, which is perhaps one of the most important factors that has helped shape my career.
I should begin by disclosing that I switched labs in the 3rd year of my PhD (5th year MD/PhD overall). I believe this is an important point to make early on because we often do not discuss the difficult times that occur throughout our training. As I was wrapping up my 2nd year of medical school and exploring laboratory opportunities, I was looking for a specific type of advisor: strong minded, compassionate; someone who truly loves science, but who would also be \willing to be more hands-on and be a firm guide through graduate training. Although I found exactly what I was looking for, I was surprised to find that this style of mentorship simply did not work for me. While this advisor was enthusiastic about science, he was perhaps too involved in the minutia of my day-to-day experiments and I began to feel I lacked the independence to drive my own project forward. I struggled to find the freedom to think for myself in this environment. While being in the lab taught me about my determination and drive, my undeniable work ethic, and my passion for science, the difference in scientific approach between myself and my advisor ultimately led me to switching labs. This switch so late in my career was an extremely difficult one, yet, it was important to recognize and accept that this mentorship style was not for me.
I was fortunate in that I received several grants early on supporting my training and thus had the freedom to take a more careful approach as I selected my next mentor. I knew that my strengths were in my ability to design, develop, and move a project forward, and I needed the space and support to be creative with science. I chose my next advisor because he was not only a successful scientist, but he was also thoughtful and kind. When he heard I was leaving my first lab, he invited me to a short chat about joining his group, where his first question was “what do you want out of your graduate experience?” Every time I met with him after joining his group, he began each conversation with something he appreciated about the progress I had made, and then gave me the space to explore what I wanted to do next. Importantly, he always made clear that his first priority was allowing me to grow as a scientist. When I wanted to write a grant or apply for a conference, he gave me the reigns to design experiments and write and submit abstracts. Moreover, because he was so conscious of my goals, he let me set my own deadlines and helped me develop concrete plans to achieve them. In fact, I ended up completing my PhD training in just one year after making the switch.
This type of independence and mentorship style was one under which I was able to thrive, and which was instrumental in my graduate training. In addition, it gave me the confidence to seek out and subsequently establish an extensive mentorship network with likeminded individuals. Perhaps one of my greatest accomplishments was finding someone whom I consider an outstanding mentor. An outstanding mentor is not only there for you and supports your career ambitions, but actively connects you with opportunities to succeed. I met this mentor as a chance connection with someone outside of my institution. My interest in research on surgical training led me to write a manuscript with a colleague after collecting some interesting and surprising sets of data. The paper was surprisingly well-received by our peers, and we reached out to this mentor, who is a well-respected surgeon-scientist at another institution, for feedback. To my surprise, he responded almost immediately, and quickly made edits and comments on our work. Not only did this mentor support our project and ideas, but he guided us through the process to prepare the article for publication in the best journal in the field. If we felt skeptical about the work, he responded promptly with enthusiasm and genuine interest. Most surprisingly, when it came time to submit the manuscript, the mentor reached out to the journal himself throughout the submission process. Beyond this, the mentor now sends us frequent emails about upcoming conferences and webinars and encourages us to remain active in the scientific community.
In my training, I have learned that to find and secure this type of mentorship, you first must know what type of mentorship works best for you. In addition, establishing a formal connection can allow for the mentor to more clearly guide you through your journey in academia. While your perseverance and drive will always help you achieve your goals, having a good mentor on your side can open that journey to new avenues and opportunities you may not find otherwise.
Nusaiba Baker (@nusaiba)
MD/PhD Student, Emory University