BY MICHELE VELDSMAN AND SHRUTI VIJ
Academia provides a unique set of challenges throughout one’s career. It is often highly competitive and uncertain. The evolution of science is unpredictable and this can leave researchers, at all stages, unsure of what next steps to take, how to manage their careers, or build their confidence. Mentorship is key to navigating a career in the face of this uncertainty. Successful mentorship requires an unbiased perspective from an experienced individual within academia who is dedicated to your personal and professional development.
This year, the OHBM Student and Postdoc SIG launched an international, online mentoring programme. This novel programme, pairs researchers of all levels across the globe. By pairing individuals across the international community, mentors can bring a fresh, objective perspective to the relationship while mentees provide a unique window into the changing landscape of research. Over 400 OHBM members enrolled in the programme in the first 6 months!
To provide a real platform for mentoring, pairs were encouraged to launch their mentoring relationship in person at the annual meeting. More than 180 pairs met for the first time in Vancouver and have continued their relationships online via email and video chat. In an effort to get more human brain mappers into active mentoring relationships outside of their current environments, new enrollments have begun for another round of pairing mentors and mentees. To sign-up, visit this website.
Here we present the first of a series of short interviews on the experience of mentors and mentees that give a personal insight into the benefits of the programme! The interviews also include general advice that mentors have for trainees, and discussions on the challenges that early career researchers face. We start with our Blog Team Captain Nils Muhlert and his experience in the mentorship program. He was paired with Professor Robert Turner, one of the pioneering physicists responsible for the discovery of MRI and fMRI.
Michele Veldsman (MV): Nils, you signed up to the programme looking for a mentor and volunteering to mentor trainees. Why do you think mentoring is important in academia?
Nils Muhlert (NM): As a PhD student, and early postdoc, you’re still safely tucked under a senior researcher’s wing. While you can become more independent in these stages, there’s still someone offering (largely) independent advice. As you progress into faculty positions, these sources of advice are no longer a formal part of your work.
Despite mentors being less common in later stages, I’ve always wanted a good source of advice in my career. For instance, one of my concerns has been not having a clearly defined research area. It’s useful to speak to those who have reached a high level in their career – who can look back and see what might have been useful for them, and the missteps that may have frustrated others. This was an issue on which Robert Turner (my OHBM mentor) offered helpful advice.
MV: What has been your experience of the mentoring programme so far? Have you seen any benefits?
NM: I was pretty impressed to see that Prof Turner would be offering advice. I knew his work, and had seen him give some good talks in the past (and ask some tough questions). I sent along my CV and explained the stage I was at. I also mentioned my main concern: how to balance multiple research interests with dwindling time, particularly given lecturing workload. The response I received was insightful:
Advice from Professor Turner:
“What worked for me as a scientist is having the determination to focus on crucial neuroimaging questions, and to put my available time fruitfully into the development of new techniques to address them. At important stages of my earlier career, I tried to avoid investing large amounts of time on sideline projects (though I have always been very happy to be a contributor to some papers).
Great outcomes tend to follow from intense concentration. When I was working on gradient coil design, back in the 1980s, I was doing algebra and writing the ensuing novel software 16 hours per day. As a result, I came up with the shielding equation that revolutionized gradient design. When you have broad interests, it's very important to reflect on what questions really matter to you, and what you are really skilled at--because to put in the necessary commitment you absolutely need the enthusiasm. You seem to have already proved yourself to the extent that you should be able to pick and choose what you are most enthusiastic about. You can always put other interesting problems on the back boiler--with luck you can pick them up again when the time is absolutely right."
MV: What do you think are the biggest challenges in navigating a career in neuroimaging?
NM: As discussed, I find knowing what to focus on to be difficult. There seems to be different advice on this – for some, like Tianzi Jiang, looking to predict future trends has proved useful. Robert’s view was that we should also aim to be ambitious enough to create future trends: “The key to this is to work out what are the right questions--questions that are fundamental, overlooked, simple, and answerable.” Alternatively, in a careers-advice talk, Ralph Adolphs suggested considering a varied portfolio of research, so as to be eligible for a broad variety of funding. Clearly, different strategies work for different people – but having tried the broad approach, and following Robert’s advice, I feel that for me, moving back towards fewer areas of research fits my current career stage. Whether I can fit in working 16 hours a day alongside looking after a messy 3 year-old is, however, another matter!
MV & SV: As a window into an evolving and developing programme, we have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from mentees and mentors from all academic stages. We will continue to highlight the feedback in a series of similar posts from other mentors and mentees from a range of backgrounds and career paths. Meanwhile, if you are interested in learning more about the programme, please contact the OHBM Student Postdoc SIG at firstname.lastname@example.org and in order to sign up, visit this website to complete a short questionnaire that will help match you with a suitable mentor or mentee. This sign up round will close on the 17th December 2017 and new pairs will be assigned shortly after.