My experience of mentoring

I have been asked a few times recently to give presentations on my experience of mentoring as an early career researcher. I have been lucky to have had a number of formal and informal mentoring experiences over the last 10 years, and some have been more successful than others.

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I’ve been mentored by bosses, colleagues and friends of friends. One of the most influential arrangements has been the HSRAANZ mentoring scheme, which I’ve participated in twice: first as a PhD student who was close to finishing but didn’t know what to do next, and more recently as an early career researcher wondering how to become a mid-career researcher. In both cases I was paired with a senior health economist in a different organisation and different area of health economics to myself, but both were very experienced academics with valuable advice.

Being mentored as a PhD student. I had taken a number of sideways steps into health economics, so didn’t feel like I was on a clear career path. In particular, my main interest was oncology, but everyone around me seemed to specialise in a methodology rather than a clinical area and I wasn’t sure what I should do next. I sent my CV to my mentor and we had a long and broad discussion of my options and the various opportunities available to me. He asked about my wishlist for the next 5 years and, having heard it, suggested that to get everything on it I should probably look overseas. I’m so glad he did, because I got my dream postdoctoral fellowship in the health economics of cancer at the National Cancer Registry in Ireland. My mentor and I only had that one (long) conversation, but it changed my life!

Being mentored as a postdoc. I reapplied for a mentor through HSRAANZ half way through my second postdoc. I was wondering how to move from being an early career researcher ‘with potential’ to being a mid-career research with demonstrated value. This relationship was structured differently, with a series of wide ranging chats over monthly coffee meetings. I found it really helpful to get a fresh perspective on what being a mid-career researcher looked like, and types of roles and responsibilities I should be aiming for. It was also great to have another set of eyes looking out for opportunities that might be valuable, and to introduce me to a wider network.

As part of my postdoc I also get mentoring with two (very) senior UTS academics. Although they are from outside my field, they are excellent at explaining the politics of the university system and academia more generally. They have given me a fresh perspective on strategic career planning and how to package my research for impact and a more general audience.

Most helpful aspects of being mentored: In both the HSRAANZ mentoring scheme and my other mentoring experiences, being able to talk to someone about the big picture has been invaluable. In particular, talking to someone outside my organisation, so they weren’t constrained to what else was happening in the office (e.g. what projects are coming up, the development needs of other people, etc.). Hearing how things work in different organisations was also great, as I’ve had limited exposure to different academic environments. And finally, having another set of yes to look out for opportunities for me, but also to be able to review grant application, look for gaps in my CV and give me fresh feedback has been fabulous.

Top tips to make the most of being mentored:

  1. Push your mentor to make sure meetings happen. In almost all my mentoring experiences I’ve had to be proactive. My mentors are senior academics, which means they are busy. So be organised – set meeting times with calendar invites, organise a room/cafe/teleconference line, send an agenda prior to the meeting, etc.
  2. Use your CV as a starting point for the first meeting. Send an updated CV to your mentor at least a week before the meeting and ask them to review it. Then use the meeting time to go over it and get feedback on the strengths and weaknesses they perceive, and how they would see you as a job applicant. Then as they get to know you they can give advice on how to adjust your CV to reflect your true skills and knowledge, and also be on the look out for opportunities to fill in gaps or show off your strengths.
  3. Be honest, so that you can get the most out of them. Although it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to impress them, you actually want them to give you advice for the real you – even if that means you’re unorganised, un-confident and/or unsure what you’re doing.
  4. Have a defined question you want to work through with them. Even if it is a big one (what should I do after my PhD!) this gives structure to the relationship, and also helps you identify when you’ve achieved your goal.

Being mentored has given me a broader perspective, a wider network of contacts and access to different resources and opportunities. I will continue to seek mentoring throughout my career, and am delighted to have the opportunity to now be a mentor to an early career researcher through the HSRAANZ scheme.


Mentoring resources